Current Events – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What’s New in Media Industries? A Revised Edition of Understanding Media Industries Tue, 02 Feb 2016 15:44:15 +0000 IoC Framework

by Amanda D. Lotz and Timothy Havens

The editorial team at Antenna has generously allowed us this post to speak directly to what we hope is our primary market instead of through the marketing team of our publisher. There is a second, revised edition of Understanding Media Industries available (Oxford University Press, 2017—it’s from the future). If you didn’t know there was a first edition, skip to paragraph three.

This paragraph is for those of you patient enough to bear with a first edition that didn’t turn out exactly as intended and to beseech those of you who considered it but found it too flawed, to please give it another try. There are long and complicated stories about why the first edition turned out as it did that we won’t devote to print, but there were problems, we’re sorry, and we’ve fixed a lot of them.

Teaching media industries classes can be challenging because the object of study refuses to remain constant. Our goal with this project was to create a book that would provide a foundation of study that might manage to stay relevant for a handful of years and to provide a clearinghouse of supplemental material that would be more of the moment.

Understanding Media Industries comes with a detailed instructor supplement that has links to and descriptions of media content to use in classes, applied readings about things in the real world and questions that connect them with textbook concepts, and ideas for assignments and other resources. There are also elaborate weekly discussion section activities (and powerpoints) and lecture powerpoints integrating many of the recommended readings and clips. To access these materials, go to Also, an extended table of contents is available on the OUP site.

The book has an email address and a Twitter feed that we hope to use to build and share more resources. Whenever we come across a new story that illustrates a concept we’ll send a link by Twitter along with a brief suggestion of its relevance and the chapter it fits in. Follow the book @HavensLotzUMI or search #UMI. There are already a few out there. Please send ideas, assignments, and suggestions to or, if you’re not a Twitter person and would like updates pushed by email, send us a note and we’ll distribute updates that way as well.

We’ve learned a ton about the textbook industry in the process and could probably illustrate every point in the book with an example, though that would amuse no one. One of the biggest frustrations has been encountering the perception that a book about media industries isn’t needed because there are so few classes on the topic. Our goal was to make starting such a course, whether a lecture of hundreds or a conversation among a handful, much easier. We’ve been teaching these courses for awhile now and are happy to share our insight. We’ll be presenting a workshop at SCMS and a panel at BEA about the challenges and experiences, and are always happy to chat if you drop us a line.


The Force Re-Awakens: Star Wars, Repetition, and Nostalgia, Part 2 Wed, 06 Jan 2016 19:21:59 +0000 Samurai

In my previous post, I pointed to numerous “new” things in The Force Awakens that should challenge a slipshod reading of the film as “mere” repetition or nostalgic pastiche and homage. Now, though, let’s look at the very terms and assumptions mobilized in the attack — pastiche, repetition, originality, and nostalgia.

First, it might be worth noting the significant irony that some people are only now concerned about a Star Wars film being full of pastiche. A princess must return to her people who are staging a rebellion against an imperial force; she is helped by an odd duo who seem there mostly for comic effect, and by a venerable old knight who must face off against his former second-in-command who went bad and now leads the imperial forces. Sound familiar? That’s the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa influences abound in A New Hope and its progeny (those Jedi do seem remarkably samurai-like, as does Vader’s helmet, no?). Yet of course Kurosawa was himself deeply beholden to John Ford and other westerns, another genre that is plastered all over A New Hope. Add some Flash Gordon. And some King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And so much more. A New Hope was always a poster child for postmodern pastiche of pastiche of pastiche – and proof that movies could still be enjoyable and amazing while looking deep into a hall of pastiche-y mirrors.


Hidden Fortress & A New Hope‘s beginnings: bickering, funny lowly figures walk through sparsely populated landscape, telling us about the world as they do so. They disagree over which way to go, and split up. Each is picked up by slave traders, thereby reuniting them.

Indeed, and second, we could benefit from unpacking this ludicrous notion that any work of art must be “original” to be good, since absolutely nothing is (or could be) original. Everything learns from, and comes in the wake of, other texts. Sometimes this is direct (even the beloved Shakespeare struggled to create an individual plot of his own), sometimes it’s “just” scenes or characters or character types. But nothing is original. Rather, the value in anything comes from how it repeats and/or reworks. When we marvel at how fresh or original something is, we’ve usually realized a genre to which it belongs (through multiple other similarities and through repetition), and are excited to see a lone element or two of that genre reworked.

Vladimir Propp and some of his formalist colleagues would tell us, in fact, that the kind of exercise I conducted in my previous post – of walking through how a plot repeats another – can be done with all literature, all stories. At a certain level of abstraction, there really are a very limited number of tales to be told. And this idea is especially central to discussions of myth. Read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces … and if you do, incidentally, you’re reading something that was a key influence on George Lucas, and hence on the very foundations of the original Star Wars trilogy. Repetition is key to myth, and, c’mon, it’s clear when A New Hope situates us in a world in which good guys wear white and bad guys wear black that it’s aiming to be mythic. So let’s not be surprised when we see heroes needing to storm the castle again. Or when we see the young upstart experience a moment of becoming on the battlefield again. When a great hero is struck down publicly again. Give me another 2000 words and I could use them simply to list moments when these events happen across filmic and television genres, Greek epics and tragedies, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, etc.


Recently, the wise Nancy Baym told me that when we say two things are opposite, we’re actually saying that they’re entirely alike in all ways but one (otherwise, for instance, night and pencils might more appropriately count as opposites, not night and day). That’s worth thinking about here, since it suggests that fundamental difference is regularly structured upon and within fundamental similarity. In storytelling terms, therefore, that which is most amazingly “different”/“original” may be only a slight reworking of something else. We’re often doing things wrong as analysts if we’re looking for true, stark difference (the pencils instead of daytime), as instead there may be just as much value to be found in seeing how night and day are related yet still different. So, yes, Obi-Wan and Han both get struck down … but how are the integers of those scenes different in ways that evoke different reactions, from us, from the characters, by the story itself? In my previous post, I suggested that this “similarity” is far from it, since the emotional weight is different, the intent (of the victim, and of the killer) is different, the place it has in the narrative is different. Originality comes when an expectation is violated, but expectations are set up through similarity.



Changing tacks, I’d also want to question what is being demanded of sequels and franchises in general here. It’s deeply perplexing to hear people angered and disappointed by a sequel doing things that the original did. Isn’t this par for course? When James Bond orders a vodka martini, gets a fast car with buttons that activate weapons on it, has a knock-down, drawn-out chase scene, or beds yet another woman, do we roll our eyes at how the film is just “fan service”? When we return to Godfather II and find out that it’s still a gangster film (yawn) obsessed with family members (oh, how original) who sometimes lie to each other and operate behind each other’s backs (never heard that before), while jockeying for power with other families or contenders (ripoff!), is this “fan fiction”? When Harry Potter has another Quidditch game that involves an amazing come-from-behind victory, when Katniss Everdeen must work her way through another set of competitors, when Bella Swan is still working out who she loves, is this all just pathetic repetition? Sequels repeat. That is what they promise to do. They are all “fan fiction,” if fan fiction is the act of taking many of the same characters or elements and reworking them with some new elements added. And unless a sequel radically violates the terms of the original world, narrative, or characters, it’s also always “fan service.” Using those terms to criticize a sequel, therefore, is too often indicative of the speaker’s derogatory elitist ignorance about fandom (aw, how cute that some people think all fanfic is “My Big Day at Hogwarts,” and don’t know about all the fucking and cuddling that Harry and Draco get up to in fanfic), but also betrays a very odd lack of awareness of the very point of sequels, like complaining that a eulogy just wouldn’t shut up about the dead person and their life.

Yawn. How Fan Service. Such No Originality

Wow. How Fan Service. Such No Originality. So Repetition.

I wonder, though, whether The Force Awakens was misread by some viewers as a reboot not “just” a sequel. Certainly, sequels more usually follow fast on the heels of their originals, whereas The Force Awakens is many years “late,” as is more common with reboots. And whereas increasingly franchises lack a constant auteur figure, Star Wars was associated with George Lucas (and Twentieth Century Fox) for so long in a way that may have led some to see J. J. Abrams and Disney as necessarily “rebooting” the franchise, especially since Abrams recently (sort of) rebooted Star Trek. Reboots are all the rage, and carry with them a different set of expectations, namely that a fresh start of forms will occur. The narrative world should feel different, the key characters should be given new backstories or wrinkles. But The Force Awakens isn’t a reboot, and the prominent use of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and (to a lesser extent, at least in trailers) Mark Hamill in promotional materials should’ve made that clear: the gang was getting back together. In the absence of announcements that, say, The Rock was going to play Han, or that Kristin Schaal would play a reinvented Leia, there was no fakeout here: The Force Awakens was sold as a sequel. The most prominent line across many of its trailers was Kylo Ren’s “I will finish what you started,” and one of them ended with Han pronouncing, “Chewie, we’re home.” Those lines subtly (or not-so-subtly?) alluded, too, to the franchise’s need to overcome the prequel trilogy, to reset, and to get back to basics.


As my previous post suggested, The Force Awakens does have a lot that’s new, the world is slightly different, the stakes are revised, and the key narrative and character dynamics are not carbon copies. But even if we acknowledge the significant repetition, mythic resonance, homage, pastiche, and loop-backs, none of those should be the grounds for castigating a text. So by all means say you didn’t like the characters, the feel, the pacing, or any specifics. Snoke sucks in totality, for instance (the name alone is stupider than even “Jar-Jar”). The fact that one sanitation stormtrooper knows how to destroy Starkiller Base is a ludicrous plot-hole (maybe all those Bothan spies wouldn’t have died finding plans for Death Star 2.0 if only one of them had thought to ask the dude cleaning the toilets how to destroy it). There’s more. Or by all means criticize how any plot element was redone and didn’t work as well (or at all) in the reworking. Part of my problem with Starkiller Base is that as new as it is in some ways (a supergun rooted in a planet, that siphons energy from the Sun is somewhat fresh), it violates what we’d expect from the third in a sequence, being bigger and better, yes, yet having far inferior defenses (2.0 was harder to destroy than 1.0, but 3.0 is way too easily destroyed). Or, as strong as the team of Rey, Finn, and Poe are in other ways, I worry that they’re not particularly fun, and that we just killed off Han the Fun Bringer. But the attack on the film as a repetitive, unoriginal clone is replete with erroneous, idealistic notions of originality that simply don’t hold up, and that critical scholars should be able to cut through.

Snoke sucks

Snoke sucks

Finally, and changing tacks again, there’s the critique of this being nostalgia. As I noted in the last post, this alone is an interesting admission that The Force Awakens is different, since A New Hope was more definitively future-focused. Nostalgia is too often used clumsily in regular speech, though, used to mean “a desire for repetition” or “a desire to go back,” yet without realizing that nostalgia always carries an element of pain, emanating from the realization that we can’t go back. There can be great warmth in nostalgia, and some versions of it aim only to revel in that warmth (cf. Happy Days). But handled well, nostalgia should encourage reflection, not only on the fact that we can’t go back because of time’s onward march, but on the idea that the time, place, or feeling that we want to go back to was never really there.

Consider Kylo Ren, who holds onto the melted mask of his grandfather, and who looks to it for guidance and support. We all know this to be a pathetic act, partly because, well, speaking to a melted mask isn’t entirely healthy, but mostly because we know his grandfather well. Anakin went to the Dark Side, destroying many good people in the process, killing kids in the process, and allowing fascism to rise. He lives up to his destiny to “bring balance to the Force” in his last moments, but overall his life was unequivocally tragic. He wore his mask, no less, not strictly speaking to be bad-ass and masked, but to hide a scarred face, to support his crumbled body, and to hide his last vestiges of humanity. For Ren to want to be Vader, to walk in his foot-steps, to “finish what he started,” is thus deeply misguided to say the least, and shows as much misunderstanding of history as does an average Tea Party rally. Ren is a figure suffering from nostalgia, mired and trapped in the past that he has created, not a real past. And yet when his father Han calls for him to snap out of it, Ren acknowledges that moving back in time isn’t possible. That whole scene, no less, is marked with futility – precisely because we’ve seen the original trilogy, we know when Han steps out onto that platform that he’s dead, and as he appeals to Ren, we know the appeal will fail. There is no going back.

Things My Grandpa Did

Things My Grandpa Did, by Kylo Ren

To be fair to The Force Awakens’ critics who allege woeful nostalgia, though, they’re not talking about nostalgia within the diegesis per se; they’re talking about nostalgia for the original films. Abrams certainly gives us Han and Chewie in the Falcon again, X-Wings destroying enemy bases, lightsaber battles in the dark, and even iris and wipe edits, but he also denies us some pleasures in thoughtful ways that conform to this interesting, reflective type of nostalgia. Take Han and Leia. We don’t get much of them bickering playfully and in a somewhat sexually charged way in The Force Awakens, and we don’t see them living happily ever after. We see them hug, but with Leia’s eyes full of loss and sadness. They reflect upon the fact that their relationship wasn’t strong enough to survive the loss of their son, and in their reflections that they each responded by “going back to the only thing I was ever any good at,” there’s an admission that they weren’t good at being with each other. There’s an acceptance of this, moreover, and Abrams never poses the state of their relationship as something to be resolved or overcome. I find a painful beauty in that. Nostalgic? Yes. But not at all repetition, nor a return to the way things were; instead, a message that the only (open, obvious) couple that the original trilogy gave us wasn’t a princess and her knight destined to live happily every after, and that maybe we don’t need a princess and knight to live happily ever after (since neither is “broken” per se).

Just like old times??

Just like old times??

The film isn’t just an exercise in the gleeful nostalgia of going back to where we were, and it has a more complex relationship to time and to the pasts in and of the film. The Force Awakens engages with nostalgia, but it is a thoughtful engagement, not at all the “aw, geez, isn’t it nice to be back where we started?” nostalgia that the disdainful criticisms of it suggest.


Let me conclude by reiterating that I don’t intend anything here to demand that The Force Awakens is an amazing film that must be revered. But to attack it front-on as an exercise in mere repetition, loving and uncritical nostalgia, and pastiche is, as Admiral Ackbar would tell us, a trap, since those pesky shield generators are still up. If you want to dislike it, go for it, but avoid an attack that idolizes a whacky notion of originality, and/or that rests upon on a misguided understanding of what repetition and nostalgia are.


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The Force Re-Awakens: Star Wars, Repetition, and Nostalgia, Part 1 Tue, 05 Jan 2016 17:18:52 +0000 Heading

Since the release of J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the Internet has been alive with complaints about it as an exercise in nostalgia that revels in mere repetition, pastiche, photocopying, etc. (I’d cite some examples, but at this point it’d be like citing examples of cats being popular on the Internet: you can find these complaints anywhere). Sometimes, these ooze with contempt for fandom, writing the movie off as “fan service” or “fan fiction,” as if that’s the worst thing anything could ever be. Some such posts and reviews rehash the tired, ancient, and utterly insipid suggestion that anyone who enjoys a blockbuster Hollywood franchise film is a brainless sheep, grazing here in the pasture of Farmer Walt. Others are less unkind to the audience, but instead regard themselves as offering aesthetic critiques, arguing that there is “nothing new” and wringing their hands about a culture of repetition.

I want to respond to and engage with this line of attack. I don’t intend this as a defense per se – since the film obviously has many lovers whose gushing praise of the film is as prevalent as the attack, and since I think the film is going to be just fine (understatement alert). Nor is this a plea for critics to come around and see the light, since they’re welcome to dislike the film. Rather, it’s interesting to stop and think through what’s being said about originality, nostalgia, franchising, and repetition.

In this post, I’ll discuss what is in fact new, then in a follow-up post I’ll ask “so what if there’s repetition?” and explore the bizarre criticism that The Force Awakens looking and feeling like A New Hope is contemptible. To discuss what’s new in the film requires getting into its guts, so this post will focus heavily on the plot and characters, whereas the next one will examine broader issues separated from that plot and those characters, of repetition, sequels, and originality.

A warning – spoilers abound. Don’t read past here if you don’t want to be spoiled (but also, hey, it’s been out for three weeks now. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go see it already).


To begin, let’s acknowledge that the film does indeed engage in quite a lot of repetition with variation. The (1) First Order is catching up with (2) Poe, who is believed to have important information regarding the whereabouts of a lynchpin of the (3) Resistance efforts against it, when (4) BB-8 is set loose on the desert planet of (5) Jakku with said information. Our young desert-dwelling hero with a mysterious past, (6) Rey, stumbles into an alliance with (7) Finn, and the old warrior (8) Han Solo, while that pesky evil organization engages its mega weapon, (9) the Starkiller Base, to destroy (10) many planets, to show its supreme fascist power. Positioned within the evil organization, and following the leadership of (11) Snoke, and alongside numerous Brits in grey uniforms, is the disliked Sith figure of power and malevolence, (12) Kylo Ren, who has a fondness for helmets and dark clothing. After encountering numerous interesting species, some friendly some dangerous, our heroes find plans to destroy this nasty base, team up with the x-wings to do so, and in a race of time to see who will strike first, the good guys or the bad guys, yay, the good guys win and destroy the base, but not before the nasty Sith faces off with an old frenemy and kills him, much to the horror of our onlooking heroes. Replace those numbers with, respectively, the Empire, Leia, the Rebellion, R2-D2, Tatooine, Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, the Death Star, Alderaan, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Darth Vader, and you have the plot of A New Hope. So, yes, there is definite overlap.

What’s new?

A lot of scenes, while ostensibly similar, carry vastly different weight precisely because they’re happening in the seventh movie of a franchise that is now 38 years old. Saying that a scene is “the same” as one in A New Hope is like saying a 60s style diner is “the same” as a diner one would actually have visited in the 60s, when of course it’s not – time has intervened and history has added and edited meaning. Maybe that diner you used to eat in as a kid looks just the same, but its neighborhood has changed, the owner has wrinkles, the people sitting there are no longer choosing between it and twenty other similar diners but between it and a Thai place, Chinese takeout, arepas from a food cart, and so on, the restaurant has its own stories, and thus you’re simply wrong if you think you’re reacting to it the same way as you used to. When context changes, meaning changes, and this script would surely have been written with an awareness of context changing. Add “small” changes, since this is not repetition – it’s repetition with variation – and add history, and a great deal changes.


The Force Awakens situates us in a galaxy where fascism and evil seem doomed to return, to hold the day, as a constant threat, even when we thought it was vanquished. By comparison, Leia’s Rebellion in A New Hope has been fighting the Empire for how long? Star Wars fans can now answer that question precisely, but when the film came out, we didn’t know whether it was a recent threat or a long-running one. This changes the stakes considerably, and proposes a bleaker, darker world, one that is further signaled by relationship failures and by loss – Han and Leia didn’t live happily ever after, they lost their son, Leia lost her brother, we all lose Han (and where, really, is the parallel there? The worst unplanned death of a good guy in the original trilogy is who? Porkins? Random Ewok #8? Han’s tauntaun?), and Rey feels the absence of her parents as Luke never did. Tears are shed. The kids with whom I watched The Force Awakens the second time found the movie a downer, and many adults did too, whereas A New Hope is effervescently upbeat.


Our bad guy is different too. When we encountered Vader, he was something of a solitary figure, derided for practicing an obscure religion, and simply A Bad Guy; by contrast, Kylo Ren not only follows Snoke, a Sith Lord, in a way that automatically privileges him over his fascist ginger (am I the only one to see a South Park reference here?) counterpart, and that puts him in a long line of Sith, but we know at this point in the franchise to assume that bad guys have good struggling within them, so we’re asked to relate to him differently. Vader, moreover, is confident and assured: he doesn’t run anywhere, he just strides; he never questions himself (till Return of the Jedi); he seems certain of victory. Kylo Ren, though, is replete with weakness, sensed by Rey when she backwashes his mind-reading trick; he rages like an angry toddler; he shows off; and for half the film he has his mask off, making him more human than Vader. Defeating him therefore seems to require a wholly different bag of tricks than defeating A New Hope’s Vader.


Or take the much-discussed killing of Han, reminiscent of the killing of Obi-Wan. When Obi-Wan’s killed, he’s had about fifteen minutes of screen-time, if that. By contrast, when Han’s killed, he’s arguably the most beloved character in a 38 year-old franchise, somebody who many audience members may’ve imagined they were on the playground, may’ve (should’ve?) even had crushes on. And since it’s Harrison Ford, he’s also Indiana Jones. Comparing the emotional impact of their deaths is thus plain silly. Let’s remember, too, that Obi-Wan wanted to be struck down – his little smirk before he stops fighting is one of the best parts of A New Hope, as is his mercurial threat that striking him down will only make him stronger, and the suggestion that Luke’s meant to watch, that Obi-Wan’s death is a sacrifice in aid of some future gain. Barring major new information, though, Han’s just dead: he won’t be appearing in ghost-form in a swamp near you anytime soon. He doesn’t do it to help Rey along a path. Obi-Wan doesn’t appeal to Anakin as his old friend, as Han appeals to his son; Obi-Wan is sure either than Anakin is gone or that he can’t bring him back except through death, whereas Han wants to bring his son home and thinks for a minute that his appeal is working.


Importantly, too, A New Hope is governed by young people, and brims with youthful desires to become someone, to grow up, to create something new, and to throw off the shackles of old guardians. Uncle Owen is unlikable for holding Luke back (as is Grand Moff Tarkin for holding Vader in check, for that matter), and Obi-Wan is exceptional precisely because he plays the role of cool uncle saying that Luke should go ahead and train as a Jedi, travel the galaxy, leave home. There’s more than a touch of the sixties in these folk. The Force Awakens, by contrast, respects and reveres its elders. Only Kylo Ren rages against his parents, and we as an audience are presumed to side with those parents. The film is quite tender in its brief treatment of Leia and Han as an old couple, Mark Hamill’s face in the closing scene is worn down by time, even new character Maz has a wisdom to be heard. Ironically, in other words, when critics say The Force Awakens is drenched in nostalgia, they’re noting that it’s operating in a very different mode from the future-centered New Hope.


And then there’s Finn, Rey, and (the admittedly under-developed) Poe. I can’t help but notice that an overwhelming amount of the attacks on The Force Awakens offering “nothing new” are from white guys, who clearly don’t get why it might matter that the franchise – the most successful franchise in media and merchandising history, no less – has just been entrusted to a Black English man, a White English woman, and a Guatemalan-American man. This is massive for identity politics. Perhaps not unique, but big. Especially for a franchise that has often relegated people of color to being comic fodder or the basis for stereotyped alien races. As a kid playing Star Wars, I was invited to play a host of white mostly-American figures (or the Black Bad Guy), but if kids are playing Star Wars now, they’re presented with a much wider range of options.


Finn appears in my plot parallel exercise above as a counterpart to Han, but is not at all Han. He’s a defector – a role entirely new to the films – not a rogue. Being a defector invites us to think about the ethical positioning of being part of the First Order, in a way that none of the original movies ever cared about, and in a way that immediately positions him as principled, whereas Han’s principles are notoriously questioned throughout A New Hope. Finn’s not as sure of himself as is Han, and he’s arguably allowed a wider range – brave, crack shot, scared, tentative, funny, impulsive, controlled, along for the ride, ready to act.


Rey, meanwhile, is the movie’s centerpiece. There are some nominal similarities to Luke, but she’s so much more capable, less whiny. The schtick surrounding her annoyance at Finn taking her hand tells us a lot about her independence. The Force is stronger in her, as is having her shit together. And let’s be honest that Daisy Ridley runs circles around Mark Hamill’s rather poor acting from A New Hope. Her Rey is the first bona fide hero in the filmic franchise: I count Han and Obi-Wan as sidekicks, Luke was too dithery and needed two films to get up to speed, and Episodes I-III’s Anakin was so horribly acted that he just existed as a long, stale filmic fart. Despite being the film’s clear hero, she doesn’t destroy the Starkiller Base, nor does she defeat the bad guy, and yet she offers a stronger spine for the next two films than Luke ever did.

I could go on about all sorts of little changes, too, but each of the above changes tone, theme, and stakes.

The Force Awakens isn’t just A New Hope in slightly newer clothing, therefore. But in the next post, I’ll allow the critics the day, assume it is or that my comments above aren’t convincing, and I’ll then ask, “so what?” Why are people bothered that Film #7 in a series seems a lot like some of the earlier films? And what might they be overlooking about how storytelling in this mode works?


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Fall Premieres 2015: Halftime Report Tue, 29 Sep 2015 13:30:12 +0000 combo

We have three more weeks of Fall premiere reviews, but now seems like a good time to stop and take stock. So far, we’ve published 57 reviews of 30 new shows. Below we offer links, summaries, and (for the networks) some Nielsen numbers (from TV By the Numbers, and just the 18-49 ratings, since those are what most of these channels care about. No cable ratings numbers since they took too long to find). I’m deeply distrustful of the Nielsen numbers, but since they’re the coin of the realm, should you be deciding what to try watching and what to avoid, the numbers may give you a sense of whether they’re likely to stick around long enough to bother.



Blood and Oil was reviewed by Melissa Aronczyk (Matt Sienkiewicz will review soon), who saw little awareness by the show of what oil means, but some awareness of what melodrama means. A 1.4/4 is a little anemic (or is the correct bad metaphor “all dried out”?).

The Muppets was reviewed by Melissa Click, Kyra Hunting, and Caroline Leader, none of whom loved it, but Melissa and Kyra will be sticking around to see how it develops, while Caroline, Statler, and Waldorf were decidedly colder on the effort. A 2.8/10 is a strong opening.

Quantico was reviewed by Kyra Hunting, Kit Hughes, and Bradley Schauer. Kit wasn’t impressed, while Kyra and Brad will be back for more. A 1.9/6 improves on last year’s Revenge premiere, but is a little lackluster for ABC.


ABC Family

Monica the Medium was reviewed Jonathan Gray and Louisa Stein, with Louisa showing more kindness and interest, Jonathan showing only dislike.



Hand of God was reviewed by Charlotte Howell, who was cautiously optimistic and intrigued by its pilot.



Fear the Walking Dead was reviewed by Amanda Keeler (here), who is sticking around for more, having liked a fair deal of what she saw.



The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was reviewed by Geoffrey Baym, Amber Day, Nick Marx, Chuck Tryon, and Dannagal Young (special post here), garnering reactions ranging from slight amusement to excitement. Fallon’s been beating Colbert in the ratings, but Colbert’s doing alright.

Life in Pieces was reviewed by Kelly Kessler and Derek Kompare, neither of whom seemed interested in picking up the pieces. Its 2.7/9 premiere would be great for NBC, but represents a hemorrhaging of lead-in Big Bang Theory’s 4.5/16.

Limitless was reviewed by Matt Sienkiewicz, who had many smart things to say about the show’s point that while not amounting to an attack on the show don’t exactly suggest warm appreciation. A 1.8/6 is weak for CBS.


Comedy Central

Moonbeam City was reviewed by Alyxandra Vesey, who wanted to relocate Elizabeth Banks and Kate Mara to another town, leaving a poor show well behind.


Disney XD

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was reviewed by Nicholas Benson and Kyra Hunting, with Nick enjoying it less. Groot.

Pickle and Peanut was reviewed by Camilo Diaz Pino, who noted the show’s capacity to pick up a bro audience, and who admired its aesthetic, but who won’t be joining the bros.



Minority Report was reviewed by Nick Benson, Paul Booth, and Kristina Busse. Kristine liked it the least and (precog that she is) predicted imminent death, though neither Nick nor Paul glowed. A 1.1/3 is pretty lousy for FOX.

Rosewood was reviewed by Derek Kompare and Myles McNutt, both of whom found the wood rotten. A 2.4/9 is okay, but surely Fox would rather a better lead-in to Empire.

Scream Queens received mix reviews from Kyra Hunting, Alfred Martin, Andrew Owens, and Philip Scepanski. Kyra and Phil enjoyed it somewhat, while Al and Andy were unequivocal is their dislike. With a 1.7/5, fourth in its timeslot, its beginning is iffy.



Bastard Executioner was reviewed by Mary Beth Haralovich and Karen Petruska, and though it didn’t demand execution from either, nor did it seem to appeal all that much.



Fashionably Late with Rachel Zoe was reviewed by Erin Copple Smith, who found it derivative and uninspired.



Todrick was reviewed by Tony Tran and Alyxandra Vesey, both of whom found it a little pitchy.



Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris was reviewed by Kelly Kessler and Tony Tran, both of whom, it’s safe to say, did not have their best time ever watching it. It opened with a 1.9 then climbed to 2.2 in week 2.

Blindspot was reviewed by Kristina Busse, Melissa Click, and Laura Felschow, none of whom seemed too concerned to leave it in their rear-view mirror. A 3.1/10 that’s first in the timeslot (and ahead of NCIS: Los Angeles and Castle) is an especially strong opening for NBC.

The Carmichael Show was reviewed by Phillip Cunningham, Alfred Martin, and Khadijah White (special post here), all of whom found enough of value to stick around for the season. NBC burnt off that first season, but it’s already received a second season order.

Heroes Reborn was reviewed by Paul Booth and Melanie Kohnen, both of whom were disappointed. Garnering a 2.0/6, third in its timeslot, was great for NBC these days, though hardly superb news.

The Player was reviewed by Myles McNutt. The House lost. With a 1.2/4, moreover, its debts may soon be called in.



Narcos was reviewed, and not favorably, by Kristina Busse (here).



Indian Summers was reviewed by Eleanor Patterson, who will be watching, but not because it’s especially good.



The Bazillion Dollar Club was reviewed by Christopher Cwynar and Jonathan Gray, with neither choosing to invest further.



Suddenly Royal was reviewed by Jonathan Gray, who found it surprisingly interesting.



Public Morals was reviewed by Kristina Busse, who found it adequate but yet another story about white dudes with badges.


Travel Channel

Uncommon Grounds was reviewed by Christopher Cwynar and Alyxandra Vesey, neither of whom found it their cup of tea.



Road Spill was reviewd by Jonathan Gray, who found it preeminently banal.


Fall Premieres 2015: ABC Wed, 23 Sep 2015 17:04:52 +0000 abc2015


The Muppets (premiered September 22 @ 8/7) trailer here

Surely one of the most anticipated new shows of the season, The Muppets returns Kermit, Fozzie, Piggie, Gonzo, and company to prime time 17 years after Muppets Tonight was cancelled, and 34 years after The Muppet Show ended. Filmed in Office confessional reality style, it follows our multiple leads as they produce Up Late with Miss Piggy. Start polishing Gonzo’s Emmy.


Showrunner Bill Prady claims that when people learn that he is the force behind ABC’s The Muppets, they say the same thing to him: “Listen, the Muppets were a really important part of my childhood. Don’t fuck this up!” I haven’t met Bill Prady, but I’m one of those people. The Muppet Show on CBS (1976-1981) was a much-anticipated event in my home, enjoyed by adults and kids alike. I’ve introduced my own kids to the show on DVD, and watching it as an adult has reinforced my appreciation for the show’s clever writing, multi-layered humor, and engagement with current events.

I was excited to hear the show was being updated and reworked for ABC, and hoped it would build on the success of the 2011 The Muppets movie, which received strong reviews and did well at the box office. But I was also worried that the reboot, shot in mockumentary style and made to be “more adult,” would fail to capture the essence of its predecessor. While I respect that Jim Henson meant The Muppets to be more an “adult property” than a kids’ property, after watching the pilot, I won’t be watching The Muppets with my kids. I don’t agree with One Million Moms’ claim that the show is “perverted,” but I did find the humor to be a little too straightforwardly and immaturely adult, and I felt the characters were a bit more jaded and dysfunctional than I’d like them to be. ABC sees The Muppets’ long-lived popularity as a guarantee that the new series will lure audiences, but the 13-episode venture does risk negatively impacting the relationships fans have already built with the characters. I’ll keep watching, but if Bill Prady steers too far from the characters I love, he may be hearing from me!

Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!


Turning on the The Muppets felt immediately familiar: the characters, the rhythm, the back-stage business. But that feeling soon wore off and what was left felt a little too much like a preamble – like the web-series roll-out to the next movie. Like Life in Pieces it suffered from under-development of its characters and premise. One might think that the characters’ familiarity removed the need for such introduction but these iterations were so different from the originals (Kermit without Piggy? Fonzy without jokes?) that I needed more narrative than this first episode offered to adjust. The series’ over-reliance on the mockumentary format also added a feeling of distance that hampered the need to connect us to these new muppets (Donald Trump would be very concerned about their low energy).

Despite these challenges, The Muppets had its moments. Some of its behind the scenes humor favorably reminded me of some of 30 Rock’s media-savvy humor. (I will already be using its opening scene in class this week). While, in this episode, trying to balance peeks at the Muppets’ social lives, the labor of putting on Miss Piggy’s show, and moments of the show itself was simply too much, the premise of the set-up, which allows for a wealth of guest stars and bands for the Muppets to play off, has a great deal of potential. While some have remarked on the way in which making the Muppets more “adult” took from their sweetness and warmth, that base point has seemed to keep The Muppets blessedly free from some of the race to the bottom humor that has cropped up in other series. In what has struck me as a sparse fall season, The Muppets has potential but will badly need to improve its focus and pacing to capture that Muppet Magic.

Kyra Hunting (University of Kentucky) studies genre, representation and children’s media.


The Muppets‘ narrative format is well adapted to the small screen in this newest iteration of the 1976-1981 The Muppet Show. Unlike Muppets Tonight!, which aired in 1996, The (current) Muppets may benefit from network audiences’ recent memory of NBC’s docu-comedy hits The Office, 30 Rock, etc. This format also allows for classic Muppet antics, such as the writing team segment where the Muppet crew cannot be effectively corralled by showrunner Kermit.

My favorite plotline, though, was Fozzie’s brief relationship with a human, played by actress Riki Lindhome, and the inevitably disastrous introduction to her parents, Jere Burns and Meagan Fay. Unfortunately, the plot ended with Fozzie initiating a breakup, and so we return to the primary Muppet cast.

The Muppets pilot was fine, and perhaps even promising in terms of what a pilot tries to achieve—some modicum of character interest and plot tension. The question, for me, will always be: why the Muppets? The disappointing answer is: money. While I try not to defame the idea of remakes and relaunches—these endeavors have been rewarding elsewhere—the Muppets feel outdated, not nostalgic, to this super fan. Maybe it’s the psychedelic ravings of Dr. Teeth and his stoned band members or Rizzo’s slimy pick-up lines, but the 1970s ethos doesn’t translate.

I also can’t shake the fact that Disney seems desperate to squeeze money out of the franchise, which undoubtedly has cost them millions in marketing. Their purchase of the Muppets (2004) came 15 years after initial sales talks with the late Jim Henson. Today, The Muppets relies on transgenerational fandom to pick up decades of slack; adults who watched the Muppets at their zenith in the 1980s will introduce their kids to the characters. However, for this obsessed fan, the show will always be 25 years too late.

Caroline Leader (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies family media and franchising.



Blood & Oil (premiered September 27 @ 9/8) trailer here

Following the largest oil discovery in American history, a young couple move to North Dakotan to get rich. Think Dallas, though it’s probably best they didn’t call it Williston. Don Johnson plays the big oil tycoon, with a large cast of others including Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford, Revenge’s Amber Valetta, and Delroy Lindo. This primetime soap has been in the trades a lot due to a rocky production history including dumped showrunners, a move from USA Network, and more.


If you’re old enough to remember Don Johnson sporting a pink T-shirt under a shoulder-padded linen jacket, then seeing him in plaid flannel and a cowboy hat (as the oil baron and domineering dad Hap Briggs) in ABC’s new nighttime drama, Blood & Oil, may be a little jarring. If you’re even older, and pining for J. R. Ewing’s bad old good old Dallas and its oil-fueled rivalries, you may be disappointed. The cowboy hats are smaller here in North Dakota, and the Bakken is no Miami or Dallas.

There is plenty of drama in the first episode. All roads lead to Rock Springs, it appears, as the little town is in the midst of a major oil boom. Recently wed Cody and Billy LeFever (Rebecca Rittenhouse and Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford) are following the crowd, planning to set up a laundromat and make an honest living. When that fails out of the starting gate, they set their sights on land. Trouble is, that land is coveted by Briggs, the “baron of the Bakken,” and his devious wife, Darla (Amber Valletta). Plot twists ensue, covering more ground than one might think possible in a 42-minute pilot: pregnancy, extortion, jail time, an oil fire, a rig crash, even a dead moose. All the elements of your typical prime time drama.

But in the drive to stuff the show with as many soap opera-style scandals as possible, some key elements get left out. The issues that for many are the real stuff of drama in the North American oil boom, like the infrastructure strain, the toll on immigrant families (for an important take on this, see J. Christian Jensen’s 2014 documentary White Earth), and — the oil-soaked elephant in the room — the impact on the environment and climate – are not uttered. Neither is the word fracking. The show also feels a little dated, given the recent impact of the global decline in oil prices. But cheap oil isn’t very dramatic.

Melissa Aronczyk (Rutgers University) writes about representations of oil and the climate in popular media.


“I get it. I’m pretty sure I get it.”

“You don’t get it. If you got it, we’d be talking season 2 already.”

“It’s a metaphor, right? Like a visual sort of a metaphor.”

“It’s more than a metaphor. Let me spell it out, again. So, the oil drill thing. You know the pointy thing on the end of the seesaw kind of thing? That thing. It goes in and out, up and down, like, over and over, all rhythmic like.”

“Uh huh.”

“And, when it, well, when it hits the spot, so to speak, there’s this big gush.”

“Of oil.”

“Right, of oil. And then everyone’s all in ecstasy or whatever. Just like…”

“Sex, yes, it’s sort of like sex.”

“And the characters sometimes pay a lot of money for the oil and they lie to get it and it makes them feel powerful and stuff.”

“Also, like sex. I guess?”

“You’ve got it. So we’re greenlit?”

“I mean, I like the metaphor. It’s a good metaphor. I’m just not sure it’s going to sustain a whole network series”

“What do you need?”

“Well, could we possibly do this so it premieres at the worst possible time?”

“So, wait until oil prices have plummeted and North Dakota is shutting down rigs, undermining the whole conceit of the show?”

“Yes. That. Love it. Oh, could you also have Don Johnson do an unplaceable accent?”

“That’s actually a really good note. Yes.”

“And, well, this is delicate, but, are there going to be any people who aren’t of the fair skinned variety?”

“Well, we were going to have a Native American woman.”


“How about we just have her talk about spirit animals then disappear?”

“That works.”

“Oh, and an African guy.”

“But he’s just the cook who takes care of the handsome white people right?”

“Look, we’re professionals. Of course he’s just the cook for the white people. Do we have a deal?”

“If I say no, are you just going to explain the metaphor again?”

“I am.”

“Fine. Deal.”

Matt Sienkiewicz (Boston College) teaches and writes about global media, politics, and comedy.



Quantico (premiered September 27 @ 10/9) trailer here

Priyanka Chopra is at the center of this thriller focusing on the lives of several FBI Training Academy recruits, told in flashbacks, leading up to a massive terrorist attack that incriminates one or more of them.


Perhaps because I watched Blood and Oil—an abandoned, smoldering oil-well-fire of a disaster—right before Quantico, the latter show held my begrudging interest—at least for a while. Using an academy exercise for exposition and character description exposed as much about our interviewers as our interviewees by showing-not-telling (rather unlike the “remember-I’m-not-your-partner-or-your-girlfriend-anymore” conversations between Liam and Miranda). This modicum of cleverness, however, was easily overwhelmed by the show’s overly-telegraphed reveals (Nimah’s twin, Alex shot her father), its silly Breakfast Club montage of Arrow shirt models misfits coming in on a Saturday for the “toughest boot camp and hardest grad school,” the FBI’s apparently terrible accountability for monitoring their gun inventory and conducting background checks, and the shockingly weird ending in which the Quantico director hijacks an FBI van to free n00b Alex “only you can fix it” Parrish.

My two principle complaints against the show, however, are these:

  • the glib use of terrorism as a plot device. The preview for the next episode describes the attacks as a “riveting whodunit mystery,” reinforcing the pilot’s treatment of a pernicious and debilitating mode of contemporary warfare as nothing more than an inciting incident for clever plotting. Indeed, given the emotional weight ascribed the bombing, Quantico could just as easily be about a bank heist (but then, as the broadcast logics go, how would they “realistically” incorporate so many people of color while smugly teaching their audience about “tolerance” when we finally learn [just a guess] the attacks were carried out by a [more narratively central] white person.)
  • No one ever puts their hand up to the brim of their baseball cap and keeps it there while going through a crowd unless they definitely just did something and are nonchalantly trying to blend in (just fyi, FBI).

Kit Hughes (Miami University) is writing an alternative history of television, taking into account its development and use within the American workplace.


My first thought on completing Quantico was that the episode seemed to have twice the time that the other pilots of the week had. In its hour long slot it successfully drew an image of the distinct world of Quantico, introduced a relatively large ensemble, and set up a substantial ongoing mystery. While a season/series long mystery has become almost requisite for this year’s drama premieres (Blindspot, Minority Report, Scream Queens, The Player, Heroes Reborn etc.), Quantico was the first series that effectively made me feel invested in the outcome of its story arc.

Much of this investment comes from the excellent performance of Priyanka Chopra as FBI agent, Quantico student, and terrorism suspect Alex Parrish. But the credit goes not only to Chopra’s performance but also to the writers for giving sufficient time to her development as a character. Smart and confident, haunted by her past (her father was an FBI agent who she killed for attacking her mother) and sexually adventurous, her character (and her dynamic with fellow female Quantico candidates) reminded me, favorably, of the women of Grey’s Anatomy in its early seasons. (A connection I am sure ABC hopes more of its audience will make.)

It is hard to imagine many of the other over-stuffed pilots this season taking the time to watch a character jog, but Quantico showed a strong understanding of when to give itself space. The series takes place in two time periods – the “present” aftermath of a terrorist attack that Alex has been framed for ,and Alex’s time in Quantico a few months earlier where she worked alongside the real culprit of the attack. Quantico uses this conceit to allow for a tremendous amount of narrative information without feeling either slow or chaotic. How all these elements (serial mystery, FBI training, past and present) will interact over the long term is yet to be seen and I am not sure what the series’ second or third episode will look like. But in this case, I think that is a good thing.

Kyra Hunting (University of Kentucky) studies genre, representation and children’s media.


This was fun, although it was hard not to detect a little flop sweat from a show trying this desperately to grab and keep your attention. Creator Joshua Safran’s “Gray’s Anatomy meets Homeland” tag is apt, with a bunch of young, hot FBI trainees under suspicion for executing a post 9/11 terror attack on Grand Central Station.

One narrative gimmick is nested within another. We get a flashback structure, seemingly obligatory in high concept dramas today, where Alex Parrish (played by preternaturally good-looking Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra) is compelled to recall her FBI training in order to discover who is framing her for the attack. This is all very loose, since most of the FBI scenes use omniscient narration and aren’t connected to Alex’s point-of-view at all. But the show has so many narrative threads to introduce, it would be impossible to stick to the subjective flashbacks it nevertheless wants to employ in places. Within the flashback the trainees are assigned to dig up revealing information about one another, allowing the show to quickly get to the hidden motivation of each character, which in most cases appears to be some kind of family trauma. Doesn’t anybody want to join the FBI out of a sense of civic duty anymore?

Quantico has a lot going for it. Chopra’s star quality is off the charts, and a few supporting actors stood out as well, like Tate Ellington as the friendly (maybe TOO friendly??) gay trainee Simon. And if you’re bored with what’s happening at any one instant, just wait ten seconds. Hopefully, with the pilot out of the way, the show will be willing to put on the brakes just a bit, without sacrificing its frenetic appeal.

Bradley Schauer (University of Arizona) writes about the American film industry, past and present.



Dr. Ken (premieres October 2 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

Ken Jeong gets his own sitcom. Starring alongside Trophy Wife’s breakout awesome Albert Tsai, and Dave Foley and Suzy Nakamura, Jeong is a doctor (in case the title didn’t cue you in) and a dad. ABC’s second sitcom focusing on an Asian-American family in as many seasons sounds good, till you see it placed ominously in the graveyard that is a Friday night slot.


Ken Jeong’s memorable roles as Senor Chang in Community and Mr. Chow in the Hangover gave him the star power to helm his own sitcom, but there’s little trace of his trademark unexpected, off-the-wall antics in Dr. Ken. Here Jeong is toned down, particularly since he starts out the episode a bit edgy but ultimately must be understood to be a good doctor and a good dad. His therapist wife and two kids are cute (perhaps not Black-ish adorable, but that seems like an impossibly high bar at this point) and their conflicts are familiar, in a good way. I like them all. I’m a little worried that audiences won’t stick around to see what hijinks this cranky doctor gets himself into (and then out of) for the rest of the season. It’s also unfortunate that the show is stuck in the format of the multi-camera family sitcom shot in front of a live studio audience—it literally feels dated already, particularly when compared to family sitcoms like Modern Family that can no longer be said to be pushing any boundaries.

That said, I’ll keep watching, hoping it gets quirkier and less formulaic as the season progresses. Fingers crossed that there will be a scene to rival Jeong as the doctor in Knocked Up, yelling at Katherine Heigl about how her cervix is like a soggy peach. Also, let’s be real, I’ll support this sitcom because it’s Asian American, and the only way we can alleviate the burden of representation is by allowing room for 90s-era immigrant dads AND cranky doctor dads; Indian American gynecologists AND overseas call center workers. I may have gotten a bad case of the “rep sweats” while watching this pilot, but I think the proper diagnosis is just to stay the course and hope that relief is on the way.

Lori Kido Lopez (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies Asian Americans and media and is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship.


Watching Dr. Ken is like an acid trip back to 1990s sitcom hell without the high. Replete a storyline about raves and ecstasy, and 1990s sitcom stars Tisha Campbell-Martin and Dave Foley. Wait, is that a reference to Circuit City? Non-funny ‘90s nostalgia overkill. I can smell the gin he needs to drink just to deliver these lines seeping out of Dave Foley’s pores through the screen. But I still love that girl drink drunk. I love Ken Jeong too. And yes, for the first time in American history, there are TWO sitcoms on TV that boast Asian American casts. With Ken Jeong writing and producing Dr. Ken, he is also heightening the visibility of non-white creative labor within LA’s very white male sitcom production community. Although I am reluctant to analyze Dr. Ken from a critical race studies perspective, because every sitcom is engaging with race and the work of representation, and it is unfair to make Dr. Ken bear the burden of responsible complex nuanced depictions of non-whites. We should expect that from every sitcom. And wouldn’t it be nice if there was an interracial marriage and we could step away from segregating sitcom families by ethnic/racial categories? Technically Ken and his wife Allison are at least somewhat interracial, as Jeong is the child of Korean immigrants and TV veteran character Suzy Nakamura is Japanese American. Although I doubt this show will attend to cultural specificity, and rather, continue to portray the Parks as pan-Asian implicitly Korean Americans. I want to give this show time to hit its stride and find a voice. I know it’s not fair to judge a sitcom based on pilot alone, and Margaret Cho is going to be a future guest star. But I also want to watch a comedy that is funny. So step it up Señor Chang.

Eleanor Patterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the cultural politics of post-network broadcasting.


Dr. Ken is a challenging show for me. Even though the number of Asian American family sitcoms has increased 100% —we now have 2!—the limited, but growing, AA roles still create the sense that we must root for any visibility, especially when we are leads on both sides of the camera (it took 20 years for another AA family to appear after Margaret Cho’s All American Girl!). But while watching Dr. Ken being amazingly unfunny and generic, I question if any visibility is good visibility because the show is bad. And I feel guilty and sad for typing that because it’ll probably be canceled and AA family sitcoms will decrease by 100%. But the show is really bad…

Dr. Ken is mostly colorblind and that’s a problem for me. I like Fresh Off the Boat because I feel it has insider humor that I can giggle about with AA/POC, but broader humor that won’t completely alienate other viewers. Dr. Ken doesn’t have either. If anything, it is an argument that using colorblindness to “normalize” us (read: make us White) doesn’t work on any level; the family is interchangeable and I personally don’t relate to anything as an Asian American.

When the show does “address” race, it’s the racist boss who gives away vacation days in lieu of not being racist. Of course, the mostly minority cast, in colorblind fashion, happily accepts like racism isn’t a big thing. Hah? And what a waste of supporting characters. I’m glad the show has such a diverse cast, which makes it sadder when you end up with a sassy/”urban”-accented Black nurse and a nerdy South Asian doctor. And while Constance Wu plays a vital part in FOB, Suzy Nakamura (and all of the women) barely register behind Jeong’s character. One word review: Sad.

Tony Tran (University of Wisconsin-Madison) researches Vietnamese diaspora and new media in urban spaces.



Fall Premieres 2015: CBS & The CW Tue, 22 Sep 2015 16:03:20 +0000 cbs2015


The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (premiered September 8 @ 11.35/10.35) advance clips here

Dave Letterman retired, Stephen Colbert left The Colbert Report, and though no longer playing the role of Stephen Colbert, Stephen Colbert will now host (albeit without the Colbeard).


see Antenna’s roundtable discussion here.



Life in Pieces (premiered September 21 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

At this point in the American family sitcom’s history, what new spin could one give it? CBS is banking on telling four independent stories from the same extended family each episode, with cast Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Colin Hanks, Thomas Sadowski, and more.


With Life in Pieces, CBS’s new vignette-based family comedy, I was hoping for Rashomon or Boomtown with a sense of humor: a family comedy with narrative overlap and distinct subjectivities through a sustained bit of storytelling. Instead creator Justin Adler gives something seemingly tailored to the assumed short attention spans of contemporary viewers. The 30-minute pilot includes 4 short, self-contained stories, three of which introduce the three adult children and the family matriarch and patriarch, and one that brought everyone together at a faux funeral/70th birthday party. At 6 minutes per bit, the writers and actors have very little time to get anything moving or make us care. Sure, by the episode’s end we have a good idea of the who, what, and where, but the 4 parts pass so quickly, the viewer neither learns much about the individuals (who pretty much appear as gross stereotypes because of their lack of time to develop), nor has a reason to care about them. It reads a little bit as if Adler said, “hmm, I’ve done amnesia (Samantha Who?) and I’ve broken the 4th wall (Better Off Ted), but I need a gimmick. Ooh, ooh, parallel stories!” The show could well pull together. It has strength in its cast: two-time Oscar winner Diane Wiest (Bullets Over Broadway, Hannah and Her Sisters) as the matriarch, James Brolin as the patriarch, and Colin Hanks (Orange County, Dexter, Fargo), Betsy Brandt (The Michael J. Fox Show, Breaking Bad), and Thomas Sadowski (The Newsroom, The Slap) as the grown kids. The pilot has some funny bits and ends with Brolin being rushed to a Jiffy Lube while locked in a casket. If it can figure out how to create cohesion between the bits, it might have some staying power. I mean, I give it points just for saying Jiffy Lube.

Kelly Kessler (DePaul University)’s work primarily engages with gender and genre in the American television and film, often as it relates to the musical.


In the quest to replicate the success of ABC’s Modern Family, few attempts have felt as strained as CBS’ Life in Pieces. While copying much of the fabric of that series–an extended family of adult parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, and kids, albeit all thoroughly white and heterosexual this time–episodes are divided into four parts. While this could have been an interesting programming tactic, distilling plots to five-minute chunks between ad breaks, this show also airs earlier, yet goes raunchier. By halfway through the pilot we’d already endured painful riffs on post-birth vaginas and adolescent penises. It’s not that the ABC show doesn’t also go into that territory; it’s just that they do it much better, as winking farce, rather than as Seth MacFarlane on a bulldozer.

Some might be surprised that this is on CBS. But this material is squarely in the comfort zone of the network that’s relied on Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, The Big Bang Theory, The Rules of Engagement, and Two Broke Girls. A wrinkle this time is that the raunchy yuks are produced single-camera style, rather than via the usual multi-cam laugh-track machine. More shockingly, there’s formidable comic talent in front of that single camera: James Brolin, Dianne Weist, Colin Hanks, Betsy Brandt, Dan Bakkedahl, Zoe Lister Jones, and Jordan Peele. That’s a hell of a lineup, and it almost actually redeems it. The material is full of typical pilot shrillness and flop sweat, but the cast, pros all, gives it their best shot.

In an alternate universe, the same cast might have worked in a quieter, slyer, darker comedy. But since that’s not the flavor in Lorre-land, we’re stuck with this. And while it won’t grace my screen again, I won’t be surprised if it actually works exactly as it was designed.

Derek Kompare (Southern Methodist University) is the author of Rerun Nation (2005), CSI (2010), and many articles on television form and history.



Limitless (premiered September 22 @ 10/9) trailer here

Jake McDorman gets a pill from Bradley Cooper, reprising his role from the film of the same name, that gives him super intelligence (cause that’s Bradley Cooper’s gift to give, apparently) and perfect memory. Jennifer Carpenter plays the cop who tries to reel him in to help her and boss Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.


Everyone wants something. But is there something everyone wants? There’s a whole lot of theory and a fair amount of experience that suggests not really. But, what the hell, it’s pilot season so Limitless is going to give it a shot.

NZT is a pill that makes you very smart. Apparently, being smart can get you things you want: money, women, a human liver.

Fair enough. But watching a chemically enhanced fictional character get the fictional things it fictionally wants is neither the stuff of great entertainment nor that of passable ratings. Imagine if Superman spent his time thinking up brilliant plans so that he didn’t have to fly.

Fortunately, that’s not what Limitless is about. It’s about a fantasy far bigger and more relatable. It dramatizes the same attraction that drives popular infatuations with big data and convinces young men to attend Pick Up seminars instead of just joining a gym or learning how to have a civil conversation.

It’s the tantalizing delusion that there really are answers to the messiest, most complex problems of human existence. That love only looks like an impossible Escher staircase because we haven’t seen it from all the angles. That getting rich is about plugging in the right variables in the right equations, not popping into existence at the right time in the right place. Hell, Bradley Cooper even shows up to remind us that death is the one puzzle that we can never truly solve, the one game we can never truly beat. Unless, of course, it isn’t.

Take the clear pill and find out. It’s what we all want.

Matt Sienkiewicz (Boston College) teaches and writes about global media, politics, and comedy.



Code Black (premieres September 30 @ 10/9) trailer here

Starring Marcia Gay Harden and Luiz Guzman lead the cast of this medical drama focusing on an overcrowded and understaffed ER in LA, and based on the 2013 documentary of the same name.


My interest in Code Black has more to do with its production history than its logline—after the show’s table read, Maggie Grace (who is 31) left the series, and producers replaced her with the already-cast-in-another-role Marcia Gay Harden (who is 56). It makes for a fun counterfactual: how different would the show be if the residency director bossing around the new residents was much closer to them in age, and without the same sense of presence that Harden brings to the part?

It’s admittedly more interesting than the show itself, which is rarely bad—the exception being the d-bag male resident who seems drawn from a d-bag male resident catalog—but is operating in some very familiar spaces. While based on a documentary, the show feels closer to ER, distinctive primarily in the fact that it resists any single point-of-view in its pilot: we get various backstories (grieving mother starting a new career [Harden’s original role], golden boy, etc.) but the various residents end up all blurring together. And while the sheer volume of patients-of-the-week fits the show’s focus on the chaos of a “Code Black,” there comes a point where no single character or story or even moment feels like it sticks with you.

There’s nothing wrong with the storytelling engine in place here, and the casting switch has given the show a solidness that feels comforting in its own way (especially if you take this as a stealth spinoff of Harden’s character on Trophy Wife. But the “So what?” of the whole affair makes it difficult to recommend the show beyond a case study in how the ups and downs of TV development can dramatically reshape a series’ identity.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies media industries and definitely paid more attention to the pilot’s casual violation of IRB protocol than your average viewer.


Code Black, a term meaning an influx of patients without enough resources to treat them, is aptly named, for it was just as overcrowded with problems.* The first and most distracting was The Good Wife’s new wig, which we saw early in a tease for the premiere, that poor dear. Give back Johnny Depp’s toupee, CBS.

Unlike Grey’s Anatomy, there’s nothing glamorous about Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, a place so afflicted even its blue fluorescent lights cast a jaundice-yellow glow. The set is dirty, the walls all scuffed up, and the action plays on a constant background of dying people of color waiting hours for treatment while a troop of doctors fuss over a young white girl and her feelings. But before you write me off as a queen with a heart raisin, though normally an accurate assessment, hear me out: Weren’t we supposed to translate all these gritty aesthetics and the show’s own premise into a cultural criticism about race, class, gender, and the injustices of this country’s healthcare system? Because if so, what happened in the script, and why was it so hyperfocused instead on the female resident’s age?

There was remarkably little plot in this episode, and the patients moved in and out of importance so quickly, I failed to grasp onto someone to actually care about. It really did feel like video footage of an ER rather than a TV show, and yes, that could be simply symptomatic of it being a sweaty pilot, but it could also mean it will never explicitly address issues of race and class. Will they ever mention why this hospital is always in a code black? Maybe. Or maybe we’re just supposed to infer from it looking vaguely “inner-city.”

Of course an implied cultural critique is not helped here by centerpiece Marcia Gay Harden, a woman who plays roles so typically Hollywood glam and posh, she actually gets away with the name Gay. Look, I am normally all in for MGH, but I’m not here for another white savior show, and I feel some confidence she’s about to be blindsided, Sandra Bullock style. That’s if Code Black succeeds ratings-wise, which it might since Madam Secretary is somehow still a thing.

*I did enjoy the joke about the IRB, though. That was satisfying.

Taylor Cole Miller (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies syndication and queer television.




AntennaFallCWFox 3

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, October 12 @ 8/7) trailer here

Because stalking is always an endearing premise for romance (?!), and because crazy women are the bread and butter of many a comedy (?!), this musical rom-com focuses on a woman who ten years after being dumped decides to move across the country to pursue her ex.


From its opening scene, a flashback to the end of a short-lived romance at summer camp, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s humor relies upon gender disparities. While Rebecca imagines her first romantic and sexual relationship as a meaningful one, Josh does not. He suggests they “take a break,” to which Rebecca responds, “What? But I love you!” “And thanks for that,” Josh says, unmoved by thoughts of emotional attachment and long-term commitment.

With such an introduction, I settled in for a tedious rehash of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Set to music.

Thankfully, however, CEG quickly moves to problematize the differences between men and women. Rather than simply assuming an inherent binary gender division, it considers why women experience the world differently from men and sympathetically explores painful experiences common to many women.

By the end of the opening scene, the show has introduced viewers to anger at divorced and unloving parents, suicidal behavior, and talk of abortion. By the episode’s end, the show has expressed a host of feminist critiques. The sexist double-standard of beauty culture is depicted in a manner both humorous (woman struggles to put on Spanx) and graphic (full bikini wax results in blood splatters on the bathroom wall). The exploitation of women is figured through sex work and unfulfilling pink collar office work. And, perhaps most significantly, a woman’s unwavering romantic attachment to a man—the very premise of the show—is found to be untenable. When confronted with the accusation that she moved across the country for Josh, Rebecca counters with the absurdity of such a decision. “So you’re saying that I moved here from New York, and I left behind a job that would have paid me $545,000 a year for a guy who still skateboards?” she asks sarcastically, only to realize that she actually has. For a woman to sacrifice so much for a man is “crazy”—not as in a Beyoncé lyric celebrating the overwhelming effects of love but as in an actual mental health issue.

I may be taking it too easy on CEG. It puts racism and anti-Semitism on display but, at times, only to produce an uncomfortable situation. Mental illness is played for laughs, perhaps too uncritically. The show’s tone can be confusing, and musical interludes outlast their purpose. In spite of these problems, I’m curious to see how dark the show will get, how unappealing yet sympathetic (particularly to women viewers, I suspect) the main characters will get, and how many feminist-inflected jokes will make it to air. For these reasons, this strange and potentially disappointing show is worth watching.

Jennifer Clark (Fordham University)’s work in television studies tends to gender concerns both historical (women’s labor and role in production) and contemporary (representations of masculinity and anxiety).


I want to like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because it’s created and written by women, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, and directed by a woman, Joanna Kerns. I’d hoped that meant the series would engage a feminist sensibility in its humor (especially given Bloom’s history producing funny yet thoughtful videos). Raising my hopes, Entertainment Weekly compares the series to Portlandia and Flight of the Conchords, and calls it “an empowerment fantasy.” Going a step further, Time asserts that the show flips “the Bechdel Test on its head.”

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a great example of how passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean a media text is feminist. Bloom’s character, Rebecca Bunch, has spent much of her life miserably cramming down her own feelings, yet it’s hard to watch her leave her job as a respected lawyer to relocate to West Covina, California, chasing an ex-boyfriend she dated for two months at summer camp as a teenager. Rebecca needn’t become Alicia Florrick, but I wish she hadn’t spent the remainder of the pilot chasing after her long lost beau Josh to the exclusion of anything else. The one great moment in the episode is the musical number “Sexy Getting Ready Song.” Rebecca’s song describing her preparations to see Josh that evening is humorously interrupted when a rapper, who (presumably) enters the song to objectify the women dancing in Rebecca’s fantasy, expresses horror at what it takes women to get ready for men. He apologizes and walks off set, reemerging at the end of the episode to apologize to a list of women he had previously disrespected.

I loved these moments in the pilot, but believe that this humor is at odds (at least so far) with Rebecca’s character. At the end of the episode when I’d hoped she’d give up on Josh and move on, her co-worker Paula pledges to help her get Josh just as he texts to ask her to dinner. These two are going to have to talk about more than Josh to keep me watching!

Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!


When I first heard the premise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I immediately thought of Felicity, in which Keri Russell’s character moved to New York because a guy she’d had a crush on, but never spoken to, was attending college there. It was presented as only slightly crazy.

For Felicity, though, the choice was Stanford or the similarly prestigious University of New York. For Rebecca, it’s between $545,000 dollars a year in New York City vs. a bigoted boss in West Covina, where “People dine at Chez Applebee’s” and the beach is four hours away. She comes off deranged.

It’s the most original show this season—star Rachel Bloom parlayed YouTube videos into a co-writing gig—and yet still seems derivative. It’s like Glee, in the sense that the lead is a Jewish overachiever who sings and dances. Or maybe it’s more like Smash, because of the original songs, and the Broadway stars. Some songs had funny lyrics, but I never laughed out loud, except at the Simone de Beauvoir- referencing rapper.

Rebecca does not seem all that rootable so far, although she got more so when teamed up with the similarly crazy Paula. The notion that the last time she was happy was when she was 16, at summer camp, and that she’s trying to recapture that through the seemingly boring, aimless, Josh, is sad. So are allusions to a past suicide attempt. I get that we are in the age of anti-heroes, but this seems like it’s supposed to be a straight-up comedy, not even a dramedy like Orange is the New Black or Nurse Jackie are supposed to be. It’s hard to imagine how this holds up long term.

Cindy Conaway (SUNY Empire State College) writes about girls on teen dramas and dramedies.


Fall Premieres 2015: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Sat, 19 Sep 2015 20:12:32 +0000 maxresdefault

Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report is one of the more critically acclaimed shows in American television history, earning Colbert praise and awards for his satiric right-wing narcissist pundit character. So what happens when Stephen Colbert the person rests that character to take over The Late Show after years of David Letterman ruling late night? Antenna asked several experts on satiric and comic television to comment on his first week at the Ed Sullivan Theater in semi-roundtable fashion.

First, some quick introductions:

  • Chuck Tryon (Fayateville State University) wrote for many years at his blog The Chutry Experiment on political television, and is author of the forthcoming Political TV.
  • Dannagal Goldthwaite Young (University of Delaware) has published a humongous amount (yes, that’s the official term) on satire and political entertainment, and performs with ComedySportz Philly.
  • Amber Day (Bryant University) is author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.
  • Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.
  • Geoffrey Baym (Temple University) is Professor Colbert himself, having written many of the canonical treatments of Colbert, and is author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.



Chuck Tryon:

For many of us who have spent the last decade relishing the sharply subversive political satire of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s shift to Late Night with Stephen Colbert has prompted a wide array of questions: How would Colbert adapt his sly political commentary to the larger stage of a network show? How might he conduct interviews now that he is not playing a narcissistic pundit? And finally, how might his show rework the tropes of the late-night talk show for the YouTube age?

Many of these questions were answered almost immediately. Colbert’s debut sketch, in which he likened Trump jokes to eating Oreos was an inspired bit of political comedy, one that would have been at home—with slight tweaking—on The Colbert Report. But the segment also signaled a slight willingness to play with the form of late-night comedy. The sketch functioned much like a “cold-open” on Saturday Night Live and tapped into Colbert’s considerable skills as a comedic performer. Colbert has also made an effort to include guests outside of the Celebrity A-list, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and in both cases, Colbert acknowledged the disruptiveness of their technological and business innovations, even while testing the limits of some of their business practices.

But the most noteworthy moment for me during the show’s first week was Colbert’s heartfelt interview with Vice President Joe Biden, in which Biden offered a disarming account of his grief for late son, Beau, while also explaining how his despair was making his decision about whether or not to run for President an even more difficult choice. Because we are accustomed to seeing Colbert playing his superficial persona, the sincere interactions between these two public figures was especially striking. It was—for me at least—a strikingly humane moment, one that used the late-night format to powerful effect by offering us a remarkably frank conversation not just about the grieving process but also about how his life experiences have affected his politics. It’s also the kind of interview that Colbert’s persona might have prevented him from doing in the past.

I know that some critics have complained that Colbert is not pushing the boundaries of the late-night format enough, that the show has not been more subversive. But many of these complaints focus too much on the broader generic formulae—the monologue, the sketch, and the interview—without looking at how Colbert is using these features to carve out a valuable niche that mixes political satire with thoughtful interviews. If Colbert’s satirical pundit was the political voice we needed in the Bush era, his sincere humorist may be the perspective we need in a post-Obama political climate, one that is dominated by the undeniable fakery and buffoonishness of Trumpism.


Dannagal Goldthwaite Young:  

For people only familiar with Colbert, the self-described “narcissistic conservative pundit,” from the persona he had adopted for 9 years on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, the Stephen Colbert who we met last week on The Late Show might seem like an entirely new person. Oddly enough, this person, this “new” person, the one who does a clown-like jig and a disco spin to the music of his house band; the one who lets his guests shine while he listens and heartily laughs at their stories; the one who takes off his comic mask to talk to the Vice President of the United States about death, grief, and suffering… this is the real Stephen Colbert.

Colbert was initially trained as a long-form improviser. He’s not a stand-up comedian. And while he is known for his work with Second City in Chicago, his introduction to improv goes beyond Second City style short-form, to long-form, truth-seeking improvisation. As an undergraduate, he performed at iO (ImprovOlympic) at the Annoyance Theater in Chicago under the great Del Close, with a focus on long-form improvisation that emphasized “Truth in Comedy” (a philosophy of improv that Close expanded upon in a co-authored text by the same name).

Long-form improvisation involves the construction of a new reality within a set structure, often, The Harold structure. The Harold facilitates the development of characters and relationships onstage, and encourages players to think beyond his or her own character or scene. The Harold involves 1) a group “opening,” 2) three separate scenes, 3) a group game, unrelated to the scenes, 4) a second set of scenes offered to heighten the first set of three, 5) another group game, and 6) a final set of scenes to unify and resolve plot points from the earlier scenes. Within that structure, relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are often revealed. But the beautiful – almost magical – element of the Harold is the third set of scenes that unite the characters and plots from the initial seemingly unrelated scenes.

To do this requires emotional honesty onstage. It also requires patience, listening, and a true spirit of “yes, and…,” which, in the world of improv simply means accepting your scene-partner’s offer and building upon it to further the scene and heighten the reality that you jointly construct. Stand-up comedy – the genre of comedy from which many late-night hosts emerge (Jay Leno and Dave Letterman, specifically) is focused mostly on the self – and the audience, to the extent that the audience furthers the energy of the comic.

Short-form improv comedy, the genre performed by ComedySportz and TheatreSports (and used by Second City in the brainstorming and development of sketches), involves improvisation, often within the context of a game structure with a gimmick that shapes the nature of the comic sensibilities that result. This shorter, game-based genre of improv taps into some of the same philosophies as long-form, but the gimmicks and time constraints can encourage more self-focused play, and can limit the kind of “collaborative discoveries” that happen through long-form.

It is the honesty – the truth in comedy – that I think are striking in the way that Colbert is approaching his new show. In the monologue of his second show, when he told the story of how the premier had gone so over time that CBS wasn’t sure if it would make it to the air – you got the sense that Colbert was sharing an honest moment of performer panic with us – the audience at home. Even in the way he interacts with his house band, John Batiste and Stay Human, it is with the spirit of deference and collaboration so typical of improv work.

And in no place can we see his improv roots more clearly than in how Colbert conducts his guest interviews. While some late-night hosts might mug for the camera or be focused on the next question while the guest answers the first, Colbert is present in the moment, responding to the “offer” given by the guest, and heightening the “scene” either emotionally or comically. It is not an accident that Biden opened up to Colbert as he did.

Just as is true of the comic structure of The Harold, Colbert’s show can be thought of as a new long-form comic structure in which “relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are revealed.” I can’t wait to see what unfolds in the next scene.


Amber Day:

I will admit that I have never been a fan of traditional late-night shows, so when Colbert announced his impending move to the CBS slot, I worried that he and I might be parting ways. I am happy to report, however, that I have been buoyed by much of the material emerging from these early episodes and I anticipate that the program will hold onto its real estate on my DVR. My relief does not stem from Colbert’s intervention in the form. As Chuck points out, he hews to the well-established formula for late-night programs fairly closely. But what he brings to the format are all of the prodigious strengths he spent years honing on The Colbert Report.

In fact, I would argue that his persona as host of The Late Show is remarkably similar to that of The Colbert Report. This is because, even when playing a blowhard conservative pundit, Colbert was always able to winkingly allow his real self to shine through. It was never difficult to discern what his own opinion was on a particular issue, as he used his character to either tear open inconsistencies and hypocrisies, or to allow a guest he respected to put her best foot forward. His giddy exuberance was also never far from the surface. And, as Danna explains, it is his training in improvisation which allowed him to hold it all together, expertly responding to an interviewee’s statements while maintaining his character.

Thus far on The Late Show, the strongest segments have been the monologues in which Colbert made use of his keen satirist’s voice and the interviews in which he has drawn on his own interest and engagement with the guest’s work. The least interesting bits, in my opinion, have been those that were scripted to appear spontaneous – such as some forced repartee with the band, or pre-scripted goofy interludes like the one in which a tennis champion lobbed balls at the host (which just looked like it hurt). On the other hand, when Colbert seemed to be enjoying the moment, eagerly collaborating with Stephen King on a hypothetical horror plot involving thinly veiled references to Donald Trump, or dancing wildly to a Paul Simon song, it was hard not to get vicariously caught in the enthusiasm.

Ultimately, it is the personality of the host that sets the tone for individual late night programs and is likely the element that most strongly attracts or repels viewers. My enjoyment in the show is partially determined by the fact that when Colbert makes lewd jokes, they don’t come in the form of a “va va voom” directed at female guests (a la David Letterman). Rather, they consist of self-deprecating humor about his lack of underwear, or veer toward gentle gross-out jibes directed at figures like Donald Trump (whose carpet presumably does not match the drapes).  Colbert’ s personality as someone who is intellectually curious, quick-witted, open-hearted, and hyper-sensitive to hypocrisies is what carried the last show and likewise what will carry this one.


Nick Marx:

I’ll temper the hotness of this take by saying that it’s early, and although the Colbert Late Show hasn’t been great in its first two weeks, I’m certain it will be eventually. The Colbert Report was our most important satirical documentation of Bush-era economic and cultural policy, so I’m hopeful The Late Show can rekindle some of that critical edge, if only to counterbalance Fallon’s pandering. Colbert the Late Show host is much more Ernie Kovacs than David Letterman, though, so he’s unlikely to hold up the same cracked mirror to celebrity culture that Dave did. Instead, early episodes indicate that his primary target will be television itself, whatever we all disagree that is nowadays.

The Late Show is mercifully light on monologue and quickly moves Colbert behind a desk so that he can talk politics. These segments have been funny (e.g. the Oreo bit), if a little transparent in their network-notey-ness to keep it up with the Trump talk. Colbert’s real venue for innovation seems like it could come in the interview segments, where (as Danna notes), Colbert’s improv training looms large, an approach the comedian mentioned many times in the run up to this fall. If the explosion of interview-based comedy podcasts is any indication, there remains an appetite for inventive and unpredictable exchanges between two humans talking to one another. Colbert highlighted one end of his emotional range in last week’s Biden appearance, and one has to wonder where else he can go with game guests who discard their promotional boilerplate and follow Colbert down the “yes, and” rabbit hole.

There are no shortage of challenges facing The Late Show, but of all the men (and only men, as Vanity Fair reminds us) recently with skin in the late night game, Colbert has to be the odds-on favorite to be both funny on a nightly basis and memorable in the long run.


Geoffrey Baym:

Over the first two weeks of Colbert’s Late Show, the underlying theme, or ethos, of the program has become increasingly clear. There were several hints, even on the first night. They were more subtle than the thesis statement Colbert offered on “truthiness” on that first Colbert Report a decade ago (“anyone can read the news to you,” he proclaimed. “I promise to feel the news at you”). On the Late Show, however, the clues have come in bits and pieces. Take the house band’s name, for example: “Stay Human.” Or the musical act the first night, a star-studded performance of the old Sly and the Family Stone hymn “Everyday People.” Or the provocative question Colbert asked Jeb Bush about whether he had any real political differences with his elder brother George, a question that began as an ode to the bonds of family and a proclamation for Colbert’s love for his own brother (who was there in the audience and mouthed “I love you” in reply).

We saw it again two nights later in the remarkable interview with Joe Biden, which, as my colleagues here have noted, offered an unprecedented kind of emotional authenticity – a deep, tender, and serious exploration of tragedy, loss, and perseverance. Before the conversation turned to the recent death of Biden’s son, however, Colbert introduced Biden by proclaiming: “You’re not a politician who has created some sort of facade to get something out of us, or triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way.  … How did you maintain your soul,” he asked, “in a city that is so full of people that are trying to lie to us in subtle ways?” Later, as Biden openly pondered his own emotional strength in the face of a possible presidential run, the band (Stay Human) broke again into a riff from “Everyday People.”

And we’ve seen it on every show since then. We saw it in the interview with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who discussed the hardship of his childhood in war-ravaged South Korea. We saw it in the less emotional, but powerfully authentic conversation with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who spoke quite honestly about the actual workings of the Supreme Court – the unguarded moments never available to public view when the nine justices sit together and discuss the case at hand. Despite the ideological differences, Breyer explains, there is “never a voice raised in anger” and no one is ever “insulting, not even as a joke.”

We saw it in Colbert’s praise for Bernie Sanders as “incredibly authentic,” because no “focus group in the world” would ask for a candidate like him. We’ve seen it throughout the first two weeks in Colbert’s recurrent digs at Donald Trump, which return continually to Trump’s hollow performance of politics (what Chuck here calls his “undeniable fakery”), his self-evident nastiness, and his deep lack of reasonableness. Finally, we saw it in Colbert’s set up for his bit with Carol Burnett, in which he explains that he usually appears on stage before taping begins to take questions from the audience. That, he ironically suggests (and irony most certainly remains a core device for this iteration of Colbert), is intended to “humanize” him, and “it is important to maintain the illusion that I am human.”

I’m not certain that any of this is the “real” Colbert. Or rather, I’m not sure it matters. What does matter is that Colbert is constructing a deeply humane televisual space. It may lack the cutting sharpness of his ironic interrogation of political spectacle, but it no less provides a momentary antidote to a political landscape and media environment so deeply scarred by simulacrum and spin.



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DC Comics’ Halfhearted Appeal to an Alternate Readership Fri, 18 Sep 2015 16:41:55 +0000 gotham by midnight panel

A panel from Gotham By Midnight.

Post by Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona

In recent years DC Comics has come under criticism for its monolithic publishing line – grim, violent books aimed at twenty- to fortysomething white men, drawn in a house style that hasn’t left the 1990s. While not every DC book fit this profile, it was clear that the publisher had little response to the more inclusive, nontraditional comics of independent competitor Image Comics (or even of archival Marvel, which has recently found success with books like Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye). In March, DC’s dollar share of the market was only 26 percent, mainly due to the extraordinary success of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, but also DC’s struggle to sell any comics that aren’t related to Batman. That month, only three of the top twenty bestselling books were published by DC.

In May, DC announced its new “DC YOU” initiative, described by the publisher as a “bold, new direction” with “a story for every kind of fan.” DC YOU seemed to be a direct response to the company’s critics: 17 new titles premiered in June, featuring a wide variety of storylines and art styles. New writers and artists from diverse backgrounds were enlisted, such as David F. Walker, Annie Wu, and Gene Luen Yang. These creators would be allowed to tell their stories without excessive editorial interference or continuity constraints; they were also reportedly guaranteed at least twelve issues before threat of cancellation.

With DC YOU underway, DC’s line is currently stronger than it has been in years. Standout titles include Prez, a sharp, funny satire of contemporary politics, supernatural police procedural Gotham by Midnight, smart and subtle space opera The Omega Men, and writer Genevieve Valentine’s re-envisioning of Catwoman as an intricate crime saga. However, initial DC YOU sales were lower than expected, and at the end of August it was rumored that DC would be largely returning to its “meat and potatoes” house style. DC denied these reports and asserted its commitment to diversity, but this week it confirmed the cancellation of six titles, including all the books just mentioned (except Catwoman, which remains, sans Valentine). Several more soft-selling new books are likely on the chopping block.

DC’s quick cancellation trigger and willingness to abruptly shift creative direction from month to month points not only to the publisher’s uncertainty about today’s comics market, but to larger problems in its business model. Specifically, DC’s emphasis on single-issue sales obstructs its plans to draw a wider, more diverse readership. DC may want to capture some of the audience for Image Comics, but it is not currently structured to effectively target those readers, or to successfully publish comics that diverge sharply from its traditional formula.

To be fair, sales for the canceled books were indeed low and dropping precipitously: Omega Men #3 received only 13,000 orders from retailers, for instance. At the same time, the canceled books were in the same sales vicinity as Image hits like Lazarus, Velvet, and The Manhattan Projects. Writer Kieron Gillen, who has worked for Marvel and Image, states that an indie book selling 10-12,000 copies “is a cause for celebration and joy.” But at DC and Marvel where sales targets are much higher, in part due to greater overhead costs, the same book would be canceled.

Panels from Omega Men.

Panels from The Omega Men.

While DC is known to cancel books before their first trade paperbacks are released, Image waits and fosters the sale of trades, which their readers tend to prefer. For instance, Sex Criminals #11 was the 119th bestselling single issue of July, but in February its second trade volume was the second bestselling graphic novel of the month. This preference for trades suggests that Image’s readership is different from the “Wednesday warriors” of Marvel and DC fans who buy a stack of floppies each week from their local shop.

Unlike the Big Two, Image is able to patiently wait for trade sales and word-of-mouth to build because in their publishing model, the creators bear most of the financial risk. While DC and Marvel pay a page rate, Image creators aren’t paid until Image has subtracted printing and distribution costs, and taken its cut. This can mean huge profits for the creators of Image bestsellers like Saga or The Walking Dead, but creators of lighter-selling books often must wait until trade publication (and sometimes not even then) to earn anything. By paying creators upfront, DC and Marvel are much less likely to nurture low-selling books.

Of course, it’s not feasible for DC and Marvel to scrap their current business model entirely. For one thing, many creators prefer the steady paychecks of the Big Two as opposed to the risk of the indie world. And parent corporations Time Warner and Disney would never allow creators to own the media rights to their work, as Image does. That said, if DC is serious about attempting to broaden its audience, it needs to allow its more offbeat, distinctive books time to build a readership, especially when readers who might enjoy those books prefer trade paperbacks and may be reluctant to purchase DC comics in the first place. Something like Omega Men would have probably sold better as an Image title, as it will read better as a trade, and Image’s core readership is better primed for its formal experimentation. But given a full twelve issues and time to build word-of-mouth from trade sales, the book might have found some measure of success at DC. Even if it didn’t, its very existence would have helped rebrand DC as a welcome home for innovative, nontraditional comics.

Perhaps small losses on a few unique books could be considered acceptable in the long run, if it makes the publisher more attractive to wider, different demographics. Instead DC seems shortsighted and fickle, too concerned with month-to-month fluctuations in sales and market shares. Quickly canceling low-selling books that were designed to run twelve issues leads to a vicious cycle in which readers are reluctant to sample new books, for fear of wasting their time and money. Co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee appear to be on a short leash; this may have to change if DC is going to effectively compete in a new marketplace where it is losing ground.


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Fall Premieres 2015: NBC Tue, 15 Sep 2015 14:43:32 +0000 nbc2015


The Carmichael Show (premiered August 26 @ 10/9) trailer here

Jerrod Carmichael is joined by Greek’s Amber Stevens West, Doc McStuffins’ Loretta Devine, LilRel Howery, and David Alan Grier in this family sitcom.


Note that this initial review will be followed up by a roundtable discussion on the show later this week with Alfred Martin, Khadijah Costley White, and Phillip Cunningham.


The Carmichael Show stars comedian Jerrod Carmichael as axial character Jerrod as he navigates his relationship with live-in girlfriend Maxine and his overbearing family. The show, part of the growing frenzy that includes the networks bulking up on more quantitatively racially diverse series and casts, is ultimately a strange series on its face.

On one hand, it feels dated in its use of the laugh track, proscenium shooting style and live, studio audience. The series uses two main sets – one that includes the apartment Jerrod and Maxine share, and his overbearing parents’ home, which looks as if it was recycled from 1980s/1990s sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Roseanne.

On the other hand, the sitcom feels fresher than I expected. While the laugh track is distracting, the series settles into a wonderful groove, largely because of the work of Loretta Divine and David Alan Grier as Jerrod’s loving and overbearing parents. However, adding to the series’ freshness is that its storylines are rather current. While the series pilot is mostly concerned with “pilot business” such as setting up relationships and broad overviews of characters, the second episode (NBC is burning off episodes two at a time) is called “Protest,” and deals with a set of protests following the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Charlotte (where the series is based) and discusses aggressive policing and the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The episode attempts to grapple with these issues while simultaneously “keeping it light” enough to be a sitcom.

The bottom line is that the cast is strong and the writing has gotten better after it got over the business of the pilot episode. Given its third and fourth episodes, called “Kale” and “Gender,” respectively, it seems the series is resurrecting the issues-based series. “Kale” deals with race and healthy eating habits, while “Gender” is concerned with the cast attempting to grapple with (and understand) transsexual identity. I’ll certainly be staying tuned to see how this series develops.

Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.



Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris (premiered September 15 @ 10/9) trailer here

An American adaptation of England’s Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, Best Time Ever will see its titular host offer a variety of acts, games, pranks, stars, and such.


In early 2005 I attended the Broadway opening of the jukebox musical Good Vibrations. One of the takeaways of the evening was that the closest thing to a celebrity on-hand was Neil Patrick Harris, and who cared about Neil Patrick Harris. In less than a year NPH hit with HIMYM and soon became one of America’s favorite gays and a perennial and lovable awards show host. His charisma and singing, dancing, and acting chops made The Best Time Ever an intriguing prospect, but instead of bringing back the Broadway-style numbers and cheeky sketches of 1970s variety shows, the opportunity was wasted. One need only know that Carrot Top made an appearance to understand how truly awful it was. What emerged over the seemingly never-ending hour was an embarrassing train wreck projecting an air of Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve meets The Man Show meets the X Games meets Solid Gold meets Double Dare meets The Jamie Kennedy Experiment meets Remote Control meets American Gladiators meets Circus of the Stars. It wasted the A-list star power and talent of NPH and Reese “guest announcer” Witherspoon on an interminable string of audience participation bits, awkward banter between celebrities, bad karaoke (forcing poor Gloria Gaynor to trot out “I Will Survive” yet again), big glitz/small payoff physical gags, and a big final musical number. No, it didn’t capitalize on NPH’s proven Broadway showmanship; instead it vomited a chaotic mixture of marching band, sleight of hand, cocktail tricks, and pogo stick choreography all over the viewing audience. I have absolutely no idea who this was targeting, and the Marvel Universe Live! and (TWO!) Fisher Price commercials seemed to illustrate that they didn’t either. America loves NPH, but I’m not sure anyone could salvage that show. I’ll just hold out hope that Hugh Jackman can parlay his Wolverine and Broadway chops into a sellable variety show.

Kelly Kessler (DePaul University)’s work primarily engages with gender and genre in the American television and film, often as it relates to the musical.


As NPH asks: Why is NPH doing this? Good question. Which leads us to our new game—Questions? Cue Bieber’s What Do You Mean? Sponsored by Ask Jeeves (Google it).

Does Reese Witherspoon need money for her legal fees? Do people find the dumb blonde banter funny? Are most of the game titles just pop songs? People do know that Alabama vs. Wisconsin @ AT&T Stadium was in Arlington, TX, not Dallas? I would be pissed, because do you know how much nachos cost at AT&T Stadium?

Why is Nicole Scherzinger a Price is Right model? Asians do karaoke games better—that’s not a question, just a fact. Carrot Top? Is that Matt Iseman from American Ninja Warrior? How did they do that? Does Witherspoon always talk in third person when climbing things? Is that The Voice? How did they do that?   When does The Voice premiere with their new season? (Answer: Next Tuesday on NBC).

Did anyone notice there was so much advertising that it felt weird when the cups on The Voice didn’t have Starbucks logos? Did you know the Jeep Renegade is a versatile yet stylish car? Did you notice they used American Authors’ Best Days of My Life again in a Jeep commercial (one that appeared during a commercial break, not during the show)? No way Gone Girl, Kohler, Hilton Hotels, and Sharper Image can get crammed in, right?

Verdict? Had a few funny moments, NPH has the energy and charisma to mostly hold my attention, I like the randomness, needs more product placement, “pranks” are too PG, the Show at the end of the Show was…there. Would watch again if it accidently appeared while channel surfing, but I’ll probably pick up the highlights on YouTube the day after while eating a Fiber One Chewy Bar.

Tony Tran (University of Wisconsin-Madison) likes to ask questions about Vietnamese diaspora and new media in urban spaces.



Blindspot (premiered September 21 @ 10/9) trailer here

A naked woman (Jaime Alexander) is found in a bag in Times Square, with no recall of who she is or how she got there, with an elaborate, mysterious full body tattoo that offers clues to an FBI agent (Sullivan Stapleton) that unravel a large conspiracy.


The show starts in high velocity and rarely slows down in its pilot. Within a couple of minutes we’ve met the basic characters and set up the weekly story in which a new tattoo will be explored as well as the longer storyline in which Jane Doe’s mysterious background will get explored.

I loved the Bourne Identity premise, especially when Jane started kicking ass and taking names. That was particularly a relief after we saw her in physical and psychological pain through much of the earlier parts, severely traumatized and tuning toward an unprepared FBI for help. But the story is quite clearly hers and she demands to be part in researching her own mystery. Given that I empathized with her trauma and cheered on her agency and attempts at situating herself in this to her new world, I was strangely unsettled by the hints given to us in the end that she participated in her own victimization.

I’m not sure I’ll stick around for more than a few eps depending on how this will play out, but I was definitely not bored with this pilot. In fact, if anything, I am worried they’ll be able to sustain this frantic pacing and whether the overall conceit will collapse and become absurd within a few weeks/months. This struck me as a show that might have done better with the shorter UK format, but we’ll just have to see if the leads can carry the fairly contrived and yet nevertheless weirdly familiar plot. But I may just stick around a bit longer for Jaimie Alexander being both vulnerable and self assertive in turn. Because who doesn’t love Lady Sif?

Kristina Busse (independent scholar) studies fan fiction and fan communities and is co-editor of Transformative Works and Cultures.


Yesterday The Wall Street Journal reported the (obvious) fact that NBC hasn’t had a hit show in two years, and as a result, has more fall offerings (14 new shows) than any of the other networks. Aside from Sunday Night Football and The Voice, the only recurrent program on NBC’s schedule that is reasonably attractive to both viewers and advertisers is The Blacklist, a procedural that pairs criminal-turned-informant Raymond Reddington (James Spaeder) with FBI agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) to solve never-ending terrorist plots and unravel the twisty mysteries of Keen’s past. It should come as no surprise, then, that panicky NBC greenlit Blindspot, created by Martin Gero and produced by hot ticket Greg Berlanti. The show mimics The Blacklist’s premise by pairing FBI agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) with mystery woman Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), whose amnesia and numerous tattoos offer clues to drive at least ten seasons of mysteries. I confess that I do watch The Blacklist (don’t judge me) and likely will continue to watch Blindspot because I’m curious about Jane Doe’s past. But I find the “woman with a mysterious past who must figure out her strengths while guided by a strong and all-knowing man” storyline tiresome. While Blindspot’s Jane Doe may have the potential to become a strong and interesting female character, I’d be more intrigued by a pilot that—instead of placing its female lead naked in a duffle bag in New York’s Times Square—introduced her as a powerful character from the start. Blindspot won’t help NBC change its dwindling status among the networks, but NBC’s (over)reliance on the new show does signal the need for the network to focus on developing programs that tell innovative and unexpected storylines instead of thinly veiled facsimiles.

Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!


Last TV season, Jaimie Alexander guest starred as an amnesiac woman warrior on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Practice must make perfect, because in Alexander’s hands, Blindspot’s Jane Doe is a dynamic heroine. She deserves a far better show built around her. As it is, Blindspot’s only bright spot is its leading lady.

Any crime procedural is only as good as its central partnership, and Sullivan Stapleton as stoic, seasoned FBI agent Kurt Weller has a generic gruffness that’s predictable. That the Australian Stapleton can’t convincingly settle into an American accent is distracting; that there’s yet another square-jawed, blue-eyed white man in the lead is just boring.

The supporting cast sports a little more diversity, though the narrative constraints of a pilot episode mean that little is learned about them. One of Jane’s tattoos does point to a potential storyline concerning FBI director Bethany Mayfair, played by the underrated Marianne Jean-Baptiste. However, IMDB doesn’t list Jean-Baptiste as a cast member beyond the pilot, so this thread may be disappointingly dropped.

The promotional material for the show focuses on Alexander’s naked, tattooed body, so it’s no surprise that the talented actress spends far too much time strategically covering herself or standing in artfully cast shadows. The fetishistic study of this woman’s body parts is oh-so-conveniently integral to the show’s narrative, so it’s doubtful that Blindspot will move beyond all this looking.

Whether or not Blindspot can be more than a tattoo-of-the-week episodic procedural remains to be seen. The pilot mires Jane in a potential terrorism case so easy to solve that it makes one wonder if every tattoo will lead to a story so rote. The overarching mystery of Jane’s identity and the motive for her intricate tattoos promise some serialized elements, but the elaborate set-up may demand a payoff too big to actually deliver.

Laura E. Felschow (University of Texas-Austin) is researching gender in the superhero genre from an industrial perspective.



The Player (premiered September 24 @ 10/9) trailer here

Rich bastards bet on whether Philip Winchester can stop big, nasty crimes from happening, and Wesley Snipes makes the whole thing happen. Taxes are paid in full. And NBC uses the most over-used line for anything set in Vegas in their website’s blurb: “the house always wins.”


“I need you to wrap your head around the impossible, Alex.”

Look, there’s nothing wrong with a show that has a ridiculous premise. Television is a fictional medium, and so the idea of a syndicate of billionaires betting on crime in Las Vegas does not preclude The Player from working as entertainment. Alex Kane driving a motorcross bike through an abandoned mall to “Tick Tick Boom” as bad guys fire automatic weapons at him is not without its charms.

Where the show runs into problems is when you move beyond its premise and its sensationalist action to the character at the center of it. The pilot knows it has to work hard to explain why anyone would willfully work for “The House”—which sets the odds on crime—when the opening scene of the series is the last employee lying dead in the desert. The show wants this job to appear dangerous, so much so that they show us the odds on our hero’s death, but this is still a TV show—we know that the real impossible is the marketable lead (who got his action credentials on Cinemax’s Strike Back) meeting the same fate as his predecessor.

But what’s frustrating is that the writers saw no other possible option to get him to that point than speedily fridging his ex-wife/partner before act one had barely gotten started. The juxtaposition between the schlocky action and the constructed tragedy never reconcile, and that isn’t helped when her death is thrown into question for the purpose of creating a serialized mystery component for the rest of the season. The dynamic that brings the pilot to its close has potential—a competent action hero with a direct line to all-powerful tech support grappling with the moral complexity of these components—but the emotional dimensions of the pilot have nowhere to breathe, and that moral complexity feels at odds with every other signal of what the show is betting on.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies the media industries and wonders if pilot season is secretly billionaires just gambling on what they can convince people to watch.



Heroes Reborn (premieres September 24 @ 8/7) trailer here

Was anyone even still watching when Heroes ended? Still, Zachary (Chuck) Levi joins the cast, and HRG himself returns (Jack Coleman), albeit joined by the others who couldn’t get post-Heroes jobs (in other words, to save the world, one apparently no longer needs the cheerleader).


Second verse, same as the first.

There’s a telling moment at the end of the second hour (!!) of the Heroes premiere when Zachary Levi’s character Luke has stolen Noah Bennett’s car, and he looks at the Heroes symbol hanging from the review mirror. “Who’s car is this?” he asks his wife Joanne, after the two of them have inexplicably shot up Primatech paper.

There’s no mystery to “who’s car this is” because we know the answer; but in depicting that symbol, the show alludes to the previous seasons of Heroes (2006–10) that serve as background and fodder for this new miniseries. The problem here—and it’s a larger problem within the Heroes Reborn narrative—is that the symbol, half a DNA strand in an S-shaped curve, propelled an immensely compelling mystery in the original show. Here it serves merely as a mnemonic, reminding us that “Yes! We’re Watching Heroes!” while doing nothing to deepen the mystery or move the narrative onwards.

In fact, nothing really moves this plot forward. While I enjoyed the preview of the upcoming season—lots of action! And guest stars! And story!—I was underwhelmed by this season premiere. Two hours (with, as NBC incessantly droned, limited commercial interruption) should have been enough time to develop the characters and plot. Instead, the story about resurrecting the investigation of the “Evo” (evolved human) population took almost 90 minutes to unroll while other elements (the CGI video game scenes?) seemed to be completely superfluous. I’m sure things will start to come together as the show progresses, and as a miniseries it will certainly be able to weave a stronger arc than the last few seasons of Heroes did originally. But I found the whole experience tiresome, like I was watching Heroes try to out X-Men the X-Men, and I’m not sure I’ll have the stamina to care if the show continues to plod instead of develop.

Paul Booth (DePaul University) studies fandom, time travel, and digital technology and is the author most recently of Playing Fans and Game Play.


Heroes Reborn has big shoes to fill: when Heroes premiered in 2006, it set itself apart through intensely serialized storytelling, a visual style reminiscent of comics, and transmedia extensions. All of these aspects have become commonplace. Particularly considering the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and multiple superhero TV shows, Heroes Reborn faces an uphill battle in terms of garnering viewers. Did the premiere build a strong foundation for this undertaking? Not entirely. While I didn’t find the premiere terrible, I also didn’t find it innovative. I appreciate that Heroes Reborn gave many nods to its predecessor (complete with awkward car product placement) and anchored its narrative in some of Heroes’ central themes (conspiracy, identity struggle, impending catastrophic event). More disappointing were the lazy techno-orientalism weaving through the Tokyo storyline and the one-dimensional female characters. There is some potential even in those weak aspects: I found the video game sequences interesting in terms of folding a typical transmedia extension into the main text, and the reveal of Molly Walker might suggest that there’s more to her than the weak storyline she had in this episode.

In terms of transmedia, there isn’t much—9th Wonders is a cover for a standard show Tumblr account, and the app seems to repackage information also available at NBC’s website. The prequel web series Dark Matters is richer in content, but familiar in form. Most interesting is the ARG-style HeroTruther YouTube Channel: launched in June and without any apparent connection to the show or NBC, but the mostly low viewing numbers suggest it didn’t have the impact often expected of promotional ARGs.

Melanie E.S. Kohnen researches television, digital platforms, the media industry, and cultural diversity.



Truth Be Told (premieres October 16 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

This sitcom follows two couples who are friends, with facile commentary on sex, race, and relationships. Marc-Paul Gosselaar, Vanessa Lachey, Tone Bell, and Bresha Webb star, after Meaghan Rath was pulled away since another show starring her was greenlit, and was in her first position. Titled People Are Talking in development, till they realized that pretty much nobody was talking about this one.


Look, Truth Be Told is bad at its very core. The show believes that it has something significant to say about race and gender, and the truth is it has nothing to say: every joke skims across the surface of anything significant, reducing complex cultural issues down into not simply bad jokes, but bad jokes that fail to accumulate into anything approximating reasonable human behavior.

But here’s the thing: I knew this. It was clear from early critical reactions, and from tin-eared comments from creator DJ Nash about writer diversity at the Television Critics Association press tour. What I didn’t know was that #TruthBeTold would be so incompetent from a production perspective, especially given How I Met Your Mother vet Pamela Fryman in the director’s chair. The show is aiming for a hybrid format similar to HIMYM’s, with a significant amount of outdoor scenes in addition to standing sets, but there’s one problem: this is an ugly mess of a television program.

I’ve never seen anything like it as far as broadcast sitcoms go. Whatever Fryman was going for completely falls apart: the compositing work on the daytime driving sequence is embarrassing, the lighting differences between the indoor and outdoor scenes are too jarring to be seen as realistic, and the laugh track appears to be being played on a mid-2000s iPod dock just off-screen given the lack of fidelity. And yet it’s the editing that’s the most obnoxious, going for the type of quick cuts that HIMYM was known for but failing to understand the necessary flow for such jokes to land. In one scene, a character continues a sentence she started outside after having moved inside, and how anyone who watched the show felt this was anything but distracting confounds me even more than the writers who believe this trifle to be anything close to provocative.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies media industries, and voted for Kodos in the show’s on-screen “Thorny Issues” social media polls.


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Fall Premieres 2015: Cable (Reality & Variety) Tue, 15 Sep 2015 14:06:11 +0000 cablereality2015


Monica the Medium (premiered ABC Family, August 25 @ 8/7) trailer here

ABC Family is aggressively pursuing the lucrative demographic of Penn State student-mediums who have never played Flip Cup by featuring their very own Monica Ten-Kate with this reality show.


This show is trolling anyone who has ever said that “kids these days” are self-obsessed, spoiled, and narcissistic. Monica, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a medium. She claims she’s also just a normal girl trying to find a job and a boyfriend. Her search for the job in the pilot is comical, inasmuch as it’s dominated by her concern over whether she should come clean that she is a medium, when everything else in the pilot suggests she’s incapable of not telling people she’s a medium (‘cause, you know, when I meet someone, this is the first thing about them that I want to know). Cutaways to the people to whom she gives “readings” are all sympathetic and glowing, meanwhile (as when a young woman expresses amazement at the fact that Monica knew her mother’s cancer had metastasized, a detail she didn’t share with anyone, but, erm, if you die of cancer, doesn’t that kind of require metastasization?).

Indeed, not once are we treated to someone who is skeptical of her abilities, motives, or mental health. Instead, the show seems intent to use her being a medium, and her friends’ and potential suitors’ acceptance of it, as a parable for how we should all be more accepting and understanding. Monica the Medium should just be allowed to be Monica the Medium, it seems to be saying … even when that involves accosting strangers with manipulative, trite sentiment about dead loved ones. Admittedly, reality television’s bread and butter lays in offering us people to judge, and boy do I judge her, but the pilot’s unwillingness to cast even an iota of doubt on her claim to talk to dead people, or on her insistence that she must pass on messages from these dead people whenever she feels like it, had me wondering whether to despise the show or Monica the Medium more. Bad joke, real sentiment: this show is now dead to me.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is author of Television Entertainment and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and is currently studying media dislike, while disliking this show.


“It’s really hard trying to find a guy while you’re a medium and you’re a college student. It’s next to impossible, actually.”

It would be easy to write a derisive review of ABC Family’s new foray into reality TV, Monica the Medium. I could say that Monica the Medium is certainly no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite Monica’s repeated uttering of bastardized versions of the core themes of that beloved series. Where Buffy intertwined humor and depth, here the sense of lightness and loving parody is missing. (I mean, there are some pretty funny lines in this series, but I’m guessing that their humor isn’t intentional…) I could also say that despite sharing a network and arguably a target demographic, Monica the Medium is no Pretty Little Liars—that ABC Family juggernaut that has managed its mix of multiple filles fatales, whiplash plot, and questionable fashion for six seasons and counting.

What Monica the Medium does offer is a somewhat awkwardly constructed glimpse into the lives of a group of college students not marked clearly upper class (a la The Hills) nor lower class (a la Jersey Shore) who cringe as their friend Monica goes into regular situations—parties, workplaces, a fashion boutique, a nail salon—and brings her emotional conversations with dead people (talking with “the spirit” as she calls it). She inserts the inappropriately emotional and the “spiritual” into each space, rupturing expected norms of behavior and replacing pleasantries with tears and cherished or (supposedly) suppressed memories. Somehow she seems to know the intimate and private and makes it public before returning to the closure of a sequence; (she does indeed finally buy an outfit and get a manicure, after in both situations speaking to multiple dead people related to the various staff).

Look, I’m not saying this is great TV; (it’s certainly no Unreal, nor even Everlasting, the fake reality show on Unreal) and I don’t know if it will find an audience, be that an audience that laughs at it or with it. But for its insistence on bringing emotion and “spirit” into the everyday (and not via horror movie tropes or destructive femme fatales), combined with its seemingly unintentional ridiculousness, it might see viewers sticking with. I for one will give it a few more episodes and will be keeping an eye on the reviews to see what pleasures it offers its viewers.

Louisa Stein (Middlebury College) is author of Millennial Fandom and studies gender, media, and audience culture.



Todrick (premiered MTV, August 31 @ 10/9) trailer here

We’re just gonna quote MTV on this one: “quadruple-threat Todrick Hall lets fans into his creative factory and introduces them to the passionate troupe of creative collaborators who pour heart and soul into his weekly videos. Unwilling to wait for Hollywood to make them stars, Todrick and his faithful crew write, choreograph, style, and direct full-scale productions weekly – all while balancing side jobs to pay the bills – to try to make their dreams come true on their own terms.”


Todrick’s title theme song gets one point clear: this is a show about Todrick being Todrick in “Toddywood.” Todrick even assures himself in his own theme song that the show is, in fact, about him: “Just making sure!” Todrick tells Todrick. And this makes it confusing because I’m not sure how meta the first episode is meant to be. Todrick has a video idea of critiquing celebrities who will do anything “crazy” or “freaky” to extend their 15 minutes of fame. But is this a critique of himself—a castoff of American Idol Season 9 who desires fame—as he goes around town doing self-defined crazy and freaky things for attention? Perhaps he knows this, but the show and his crew don’t really seem to even be aware of this point.

Even when Todrick isn’t about Todrick, it is about Todrick. A subplot involves the upcoming birthday of his makeup artist, Nicole, but the show is less concerned about her and more focused on Todrick’s benevolence in planning a surprise birthday video (and downplaying the issue that he is forcing her to work on her birthday). Also, Todrick manages to track down one of Nicole’s (supposedly) favorite music artists, Kelly Rowland, but in Todrick fashion, he films himself with Rowland giving a shout-out to Nicole. You know, instead of giving Nicole the day off to actually meet Kelly Rowland.

However, the subplot is probably needed because the show is literally a behind-the-scenes look at Todrick’s YouTube channel, and sometimes feels it would be better just as a YouTube video. With that said, Todrick is undeniably talented and it does give a sometimes interesting, if slightly fabricated, look at the frantic and DIY nature of producing YouTube videos. Yet, as someone indifferent to Todrick, I would prefer the condensed YouTube version.

Tony Tran (University of Wisconsin-Madison) researches Vietnamese diaspora and new media in urban spaces.


Early into the pilot, Todrick’s star writes a song as a gift for his make-up artist, Nicole Faulkner. With clipboard in hand, Todrick Hall enumerates his vision for “The Birthday Dance,” which producer Jean-yves “Jeeve” Ducornet quickly assembles by a wall of monitors and synthesizers. Hall then records his vocals, “the easy part” of the song’s compressed (and unreliably plotted) journey to becoming YouTube ephemera. Hall and his team also record a video, find costumes and develop choreography for it, and integrate fan-made clips and singer Kelly Rowland’s birthday message into it. Faulkner also sacrifices her birthday for the production, which overlaps with the shoot for Hall’s riff on tabloid culture “Who Let the Freaks Out.”

Hall’s studio visit takes two minutes of screen time, but it’s a formative moment. When MTV launched in 1981, it would have been more interested in putting “The Birthday Dance” into rotation than in crafting a narrative around its creation. Of course, Todrick benefits from a post- political climate supposedly removed from MTV’s original, racist “rock videos only” mandate (a lie Nicki Minaj challenged by asking “Miley what’s good” the night before Todrick premiered). But MTV has always commodified pop stardom as a lifestyle, with music functioning as part of an artist’s brand. In that regard, Todrick honors a programming tradition that stretches back to Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes (1985-1987). It also reveals the chipper resourcefulness and pathological entrepreneurialism often required to “put on a show,” whether the performer is a vaudevillian entertainer or a YouTube celebrity with an army of telegenic industry hopefuls, Toddlerz (Hall’s term for his fanbase), and the off-screen hand of manager Scooter Braun to raise him up. The music is incidental, but Todrick’s half-open window into pop celebrity’s psychology and invisible labor is nonetheless compelling and ripe for critique.

Alyxandra Vesey (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the relationship between identity politics, music culture, and media labor and her dissertation analyzes recording artists’ contributions to post-network television.



Suddenly Royal (premiered TLC, September 9 @ 10/9) trailer here

An American auto repair advisor researches his ancestry online, only to find out that he’s actually royalty, heir to the British Isle of Man. So he and his family pack up and move to their kingdom. A Princess Diaries whose star will likely never end up playing Catwoman, this seems so much like it’s faux, yet it seems it’s for real (well, as real as reality shows are), and that dude honestly thinks he’s a royal, and has done so since 2007, though he only recently moved there.


Hey, if Donald Trump or Scott Walker could become President, why can’t David Drew Howe become King of the Isle of Man? The premise for this show is pretty amazing, as Howe finds he likes his ancestral line better than Ben Affleck likes his. This situation doesn’t exactly occur every day, which produces a fascinating generic hybrid – there’s an “outsider in bucolic England” angle that feels a lot like one of the BBC’s favorite genres (except that many of those involve murders, so oddly I was watching very closely to see who would have a motive to kill, say, the royal secretary), mixed with a bit of House Hunters International and its ilk, as middle America deals with smaller beds, horses next door, and insufficient numbers of local takeaway restaurants. Yet undergirding it all is run-of-the-mill reality television being run-of-the-mill reality television: the cutaway counterpoints, the closeups on smirks, etc. And thus watching Suddenly Royal produced an interesting experience that was both utterly familiar and fresh.

Howe may need grooming into royal material, but he’s absolutely ready for television, as I found his sense of humor a lovely mix of homey Dad-joke and dry, delicately edgy (when his daughter expresses concern about how they’ll make money on the Isle of Man, for instance, he dryly offers the possibility of plunder and pillage). Howe’s wife Pam plays his straight (wo)man well, so there’s some comic schtick on offer. And all three family members’ attitudes to their circumstance is amusing, even refreshing. This is TV being TV really well, and an engaging hour. I expected to dislike or be bored by this, but instead I will definitely watch more, and encourage you to give it a shot, even if only to experience the odd genre hybrid for an episode.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is author of Television Entertainment and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and evidently prefers would-be-king narratives to entitled teen medium narratives.



Uncommon Grounds (premiered Travel, September 14 @ 11/10) no trailer available at this time

After having searched the world for rare coffee in Dangerous Grounds, host Todd Carmichael obviously still has more high-flying international coffee man of intrigue business to conduct in this new show that will explore various countries’ culture through their coffee.


There is nothing particularly uncommon about this documentary-style reality program. The premiere’s flimsy narrative sees the La Colombe founder immersing himself in Japanese culture so as to secure an agreement with the company UCC to mass-produce his new coffeemaker, ‘The Dragon’ (a hybrid between a siphon and pour-over device). Along the way, Carmichael and his cameraman ‘Hollywood’ experience a night out in Tokyo with Japanese businessmen, a visit to a Sake plantation, and an Aikido lesson.

One of the program’s persistent themes involves Carmichael’s fish-out-of-water status – “I’m the loudest person in Japan, even when I’m using my indoor voice” – and its partial resolution through the identification of common cultural touchstones with respect to life and business. This is where the series is most interesting – and most revealing with respect to the current cultural moment. In Carmichael’s admiration for Japanese obsessiveness, efficiency, and precision, we see the basis for a common ground between Japanese culture and the relentlessly-driven entrepreneurialism of contemporary US culture. With Carmichael’s background as an extreme endurance athlete and risk-taking businessman, he finds a lot to admire in the Japanese work ethic and obsession with perfection. All he needs is a basic understanding of the conventions of Japanese business culture to secure the deal.

The final scene before the climactic business meeting encapsulates the banality of this instrumental approach to cultural immersion. As Carmichael meditates in a traditional temple, a voice-over relates his thoughts about the upcoming meeting. An activity that is ostensibly devoted to peace and wholeness becomes the final step in preparing to seal a business deal. This dynamic is emblematic of a program that might have offered earnest cultural exploration and exchange, but which ultimately functions primarily as an extended commercial for American entrepreneurialism, Carmichael’s company, and his new brewing device.

Christopher Cwynar (University of Wisconsin-Madison) researches public media, digital culture, and consumer-citizenship.


According to Uncommon Grounds’ host Todd Carmichael, “Japan is the third-largest coffee importer in the world. They’re known to spend upwards of $1,000 a pound for the best beans.” On his previous show, this piece of information would initiate a trans-Pacific boondoggle for the daredevil co-founder of Philadelphia’s coffee roaster and café La Colombe Torrefaction to find the best coffee the country has to offer. But for the premiere of his new Travel Channel show, Carmichael sets his sights on Japan to find a manufacturer for his new glass brewer, the Dragon.

Carmichael anticipates that his maverick businessman posturing will create friction with Japanese commerce’s supposed “penchant for precision and detail” (though, conveniently, he forgot to pack a suit). To prepare for his presentation for Ueshima Coffee Co.’s executives, Carmichael and his cameraman Hollywood spend a week in Tokyo and Kyoto drinking with businessmen, eating sushi on the Shinkansen, visiting the Chikurin Sake Brewery, taking in a fish-cutting presentation and a multi-course meal with its owner Niichiro Marumoto, learning Aikido’s basic principles, and meditating (!) on the Travel Channel’s dime. Unsurprisingly, Carmichael hoists a box of UCC-produced Dragon brewers during the end credits–the price of doing business on basic cable.

The Travel Channel likes to cast middle-aged white male gourmands as rock stars whose escapades viewers can enjoy from safe distances. It’s a branding strategy that reeks of chauvinism, regardless of how many Uzbekistani weddings Anthony Bourdain attended on No Reservations. Uncommon Grounds doesn’t challenge this, in part because it presents culture’s commodification as international currency without problematizing the U.S.’s position in this exchange. But when the product is a coffee maker—an appliance that processes an ecologically and politically fraught consumer good—there needs to be a deeper discussion than the one Uncommon Grounds is willing to engage.

Alyxandra Vesey (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the relationship between identity politics, music culture, and media labor and her dissertation analyzes recording artists’ contributions to post-network television.



The Bazillion Dollar Club (premiered Syfy, September 22 @ 10/9) trailer here

A six episode docu-series that follows two startup incubator founders in Silicon Valley as they try to advise companies towards, well, a “bazillion” dollars by offering such gems like “if you’re not willing to risk everything, you’re going to fail.” Rinse and repeat with HBO’s Silicon Valley afterwards.


This is a formulaic documentary-style program based on a 16-week startup accelerator ‘boot camp’ offered by the angel investors and startup gurus Dave McClure (of 500 Startups) and Brady Forrest (HighwayOne). Over the course of the season, these two will endeavor to help six different startups to ‘accelerate’ their growth in terms of revenue, customer, base, and, most importantly, fundraising.

The first episode sees the duo dispensing tough love and hard-bitten wisdom to Ethan Appleby of Vango, which seeks to be ‘iTunes for art’. The Fassbender-esque CEO is feeling the pressure of trying to keep his dream alive while following through on behalf of the other core workers who have sacrificed time, money, and energy to contribute to the project. This becomes a plot point as Monique, the effervescent and industrious client relations specialist, requests a raise. Appleby cannot afford to lose ‘Mo,’ but he also can’t afford to ‘give her the raise she deserves.’ The only solution is to find some more money – somehow.

The fate of the company – and Mo’s raise – ultimately seem to come down to a 3-minute talk that Ethan is to give to potential investors on a 500 Startups ‘Demo Day.’ Will Ethan be able to distill his message down to its essence and deliver it with confidence, charisma, and enthusiasm? In effect, the question is whether Ethan can effectively sell himself and embody the promise of the idea he represents. In this respect, BDC provides a straightforward reflection of a society in which many believe that the path to freedom and fulfillment involves the marketing of the self and the building of something that can be validated in the marketplace. It is an unexceptional reality program, but its portrayal of startup life is likely to appeal to those viewers who themselves dream of beating the odds to achieve exceptional success on America’s tech frontier.

Christopher Cwynar (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies public media, digital culture, and consumer-citizenship.


My experience of watching of this show is a testament to the power of flow, not simply in the all-on-television form famously explicated by Raymond Williams, but including the ebbs and flows of social and cultural context. I watched this while waiting to see billionaire bigot Donald Trump interviewed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, hoping that Stephen’s satirical fangs were still in tact. And I watched on a week in which the news was dominated by three stories: (1) young CEO Martin Shkreli deciding that his company Turing would increase the price of Daraprim – a drug used to treat patients with AIDS – from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill, (2) young-ish former Boy Wonder of the GOP, Scott Walker, announcing the suspension of his campaign to become President, in the wake of failing to secure enough investment in either cold hard cash or likely voters, and (3) British Prime Minister David Cameron being allegedly revealed to be, quite literally, a rich pig-fucker. And thus I was so very primed to dislike the young white entrepreneurs of this show. As Vango’s head expressed regret that he “couldn’t” pay a valued staff-member what she’s worth, I wondered how much his shirt cost. As the coaches told him how to present himself, so that people will give him their money, my mind drifted to thinking about Walker boring live audiences, unable to get yet more donor money. And as the show marched its way through a tour of how wonderfully awesome, smart, and able young white CEOs can be, I thought of Shkreli, Walker, Cameron and their egos. I’ve seen too many instances of the corporate world’s excesses this week, and of “the art of the deal” hubris. Admittedly, if the show was actually gripping, I might have stayed in the here and now, instead of floating away on a current of flow, but it isn’t: it’s just yet another celebration of the uncelebratable.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is author of Television Entertainment and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.



Road Spill (premiered truTV, September 23 @ 10.30/9.30) trailer here

Focusing on what people really talk about in the privacy (or, nationally televised, reality television “privacy”) of their own cars. Also promised by truTV are hilarity, road rage, and moral dilemmas.


People Other Than Comedians In Unremarkable Cars Being Unremarkable. So, here’s how it works: regular people get in their cars and drive around, then answer tepid questions pitched at them, such as “is it too intimate to share the same toothbrush?”, “how far out of your comfort zone have you gone to please a loved one?”, “who is grosser in the bathroom? Men or women?”, or “what do you think about men in Speedos?”. I’d spare the judgment if this was something that someone did with a cheap camera and put on YouTube, but it’s so weird to see this on non-public-access, commercial television in 2015 – and a whole half hour of it – especially when some people are saying there’s “too much good television.” It might work as a radio show, albeit a boring one, but the visuals are entirely irrelevant here. Then the commentary is like something you’d overhear on a bus, in a restaurant, or at the mall. You might chortle a little and note it to someone you’re sitting next to, but you’d then go back to your conversation and zone out. So here’s my suggestion, to round out the review: next time a student wants extra credit, tell them to watch a season of this and write a 20 page paper. Make em work for it. Harder than anyone involved with this show seems to be working.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) already has too many bios on this page.



Fashionably Late with Rachel Zoe (premiered Lifetime, September 24 @ 10.30/9.30) trailer here

Stylist and designer Rachel Zoe hosts this talk show focused on fashion, “beauty,” and pop culture.


It was only three minutes into the premiere of Fashionably Late with Rachel Zoe that I was thinking about Watch What Happens Live!, the Bravo late night chat show hosted by Andy Cohen. That’s not surprising given that Zoe stepped out of the shadows of her celebrity styling clients for her Bravo series The Rachel Zoe Project. It’s also not surprising given that WWHL! has been an incredible success for Bravo, and Lifetime is clearly patterning Fashionably Late in its mold, positioning it after Project Runway, which they directly nabbed from Bravo. But Fashionably Late doesn’t only carry vestiges of WWHL!—it’s also obviously attempting to mimic E!’s Fashion Police following its dramatic fall from grace this year following Joan Rivers’ death, Giuliana Rancic’s racist comments at the Oscars, and Kelly Osbourne’s departure. In fact, the segment “#whatwereyouthinking,” in which Alba was asked to reflect on some style choices from her past is a direct steal from Fashion Police.

It’s probably telling that I spent the majority of the episode thinking about all the things it cribbed from other cable channel weekly chat shows—the show itself was not terribly compelling, feeling mostly like a rehash of concepts I’d seen before. As someone who really enjoys Rachel Zoe, who has always appreciated her quirks, her unapologetic style, and her catchphrases, I felt like this venue muted her. Maybe she was so busy being crammed into different existing boxes that she wasn’t allowed to be Rachel Zoe. In truth, I enjoyed the teaser segments that aired in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the premiere much better. (See here for one example) Here’s hoping the format loosens, Lifetime stops trying to steal its competitors’ ideas, and Zoe finds her groove. I’m not sure I’m going to hang around to find out, though.

Erin Copple Smith (Austin College) studies media industries, focusing specifically on product placement and conglomerate cross-promotion.



The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (CC, September 28 @ 11/10) promo here

Noah faces the daunting task of winning over would-be audiences likely divided into those who regard Jon Stewart as amazing and likely irreplaceable, and those whose lack of interest in Stewart or active disdain for him likely overflows to the show and the format in general. But with Trump and Walker still in the GOP race, at least the jokes and criticism will come easy.


Note that we will post a separate discussion of The Daily Show after it’s been on for one week



I’ll Have What Phil’s Having (PBS, September 28 @ 10/9) trailer here

Media scholars may best know Phil Rosenthal as the protagonist telling Russians why they suck in Exporting Raymond, the documentary about his attempts to translate Everybody Loves Raymond to Russia. Apparently, he’ll now be telling other people of the world why they suck (even if their food doesn’t always) in this food and travel show.


I was worried that the appeal of I’ll Have What Phil’s Having would hinge entirely on how easily one could digest an hour of Phil Rosenthal’s mugging. Thankfully, that’s not really the case. For the most part, the program realizes that the food and the city (here, Tokyo) are the true stars of the show. On the surface, there’s not a whole lot that distinguishes this from No Reservations beyond the hosts’ very different personae (Rosenthal’s vacillation between wide-eyed excitement and wider-eyed incredulity vs. Anthony Bourdain’s labored, hypermasculine cool). Like Bourdain, Rosenthal cracks wise through a tour of local food that covers street grub, haute cuisine, and little in between.

Although the program follows American food TV’s disappointingly traditional convention of ensuring that the viewer has a compatriot tour guide/avatar to lead our way through the unfamiliar terrain, it’s reasonably light on the Othering that winds up insulting the host city and the audience’s intelligence in equal measure. Which is not to say that it’s absent—there are a few groan-inducing references to a “Blade Runnerish” collection of bars and some exaggerated, bug-eyed reactions to still-living sashimi, but Rosenthal’s approach to cross-cultural encounters is somewhat more earnest and playful than one might expect.

But again, I’m really here for the lovingly shot food and cityscapes. On that front, the show more-or-less delivers. I’ll Have What Phil’s Having doesn’t quite reach the heights of what food television can achieve (for my money, that would be Netflix’s recent Chef’s Table, a beautifully shot, warts-and-all exploration of the equal measures of genius and madness required to be one of the world’s greatest chefs). But it’s a decent-enough food travelogue, even if it’s not adding a whole lot that connoisseurs of the genre haven’t already seen.

Evan Elkins (Miami University) researches and teaches issues pertaining to the media industries, media criticism, globalization, and digital technologies.


PBS’s new program “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” suggests in its title an equivalence between its host, Phil Rosenthal (Hollywood showrunner, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond) and the audience, but you can only be a peer of Rosenthal’s if you have quite a bit of money—or fancy friends. In the premiere episode, Phil eats at a range of restaurants in Tokyo, Japan, but the majority of them are super, duper fancy (molecular gastronomy fancy). In my less generous moments, I viewed Rosenthal as a dilettante. Yet his manner is what makes him more of an “everyman,” for he balks at the most exotic fare, including eel (bones and all), ants (they taste like lemon), and freshly killed (and uncooked) shrimp.

This program is aiming for the niche covered so well on basic cable by fellow travel food hosts Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods) and Anthony Bourdain (Parts Unknown). What this program has not yet figured out, though, is that Zimmern and Bourdain thrive, in part, based on the personality of their hosts. Zimmern is childlike and bold in his enthusiasm for all things gross; Bourdain is all sharp edges, but he is also an incredibly knowledgeable chef with noble aspirations. Rosenthal lacks expertise, but what he can offer is humor and a deeper look into his personal life. In particular, the show is missing its biggest possible appeal in the fact that Rosenthal’s brother is the producer! When Phil skypes with his parents from Tokyo, his father repeatedly asks for the unseen brother, Richard, much to Phil’s chagrin (“here is the son you actually love,” he complains as the camera turns towards Richard). The entire show came alive in this moment of relatable family joshing. With so much food TV out there, this show needs Rosenthal to let us see him as a father, son, husband, and brother, because those are the things to which his audience can relate.

Karen Petruska (Gonzaga University) studies the media industries, television history, and media policy.



Adam Ruins Everything (truTV, September 29 @ 10/9)

Adam Conover moves his show from a College Humor web series to the big time (if truTV counts as the big time). You can see an example of his College Humor show here, and quickly get the idea: brief explorations of a wide variety of issues, trying to uncover things and go against the current of popular belief, with comedy and irreverence.


Adam Ruins Everything has bold ambitions. Its first episode sees the host tackle a series of beliefs around “giving.” He notes that diamonds as emblems of romance are completely a product of De Beers’ advertising, he explores the silliness of Tom’s Shoes promising to give a free pair of shoes to a random African kid for every pair you buy, he interrogates the (il)logic of canned food drives, donating blood after natural disasters, and saving ring tabs for charity. It’s visually interesting, too: Daily Prophet-style, authors’ dust jacket photos come alive and talk to him, plenty of animation and CGI are used, and there’s a pace to it. He even gets bonus points for having professors on and (!) for using footnotes on screen to show his sources. It’s trying to be edutainment for adults, and I appreciate the attempt to debunk that which needs debunking.

But holy moly is this a big stinking pile of mansplaining. The pilot consisted mostly of host Adam Conover telling an oh-so-naïve young white woman how dumb and ill-informed she is. She was set up as one half of a couple, but somehow her fiancé didn’t need the lessons like she does. Even worse, she’s a teacher, so Conover’s performance is predicated on telling a woman who thinks she’s smart that, no honeycakes, actually you’re not. Then, when she’s disappeared, as a coda to the show, he accosts another wrong-but-pretty white woman at a bus stop. Admittedly, he embraces and owns the fact that he’s annoying, but never that he’s a sexist jerk. The show reminds us he’s “ruining” things for people too often, virtually suggesting that he’s (a very, very white) Morpheus come to give the women and schoolgirls of the world the red pill. Indeed, the CGI and animation set him up as some omniscient, omnipresent being. As much as the show seems to want to be educational, it’s draped with the ickery of talking to a male audience who are presumed to have had the blue pill, and who just need a few more factoids as arsenal in their mission to fix all the pretty little heads of the universe. Maybe future episodes will see him lecture dudes too, but it’s utterly tone deaf for a pilot to be this full of mansplaining, so I’ll just put the show down over here and not come back to it.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) has numerous bios up this page.



The Brain with David Eagleman (PBS, October 14 @ 10/9) trailer here

A six-part study of the brain, how we think, how we feel, and how it all works, hosted by neuroscientist and best-selling author Eagleman.